A key element in the success and continuing attraction of the HKSAR is
that its judicial system operates on the principle, fundamental to the
common law system, of the independence of the judiciary from the executive
and legislative branches of government. The courts make their own judgments,
whether disputes before them involve private citizens, corporate bodies
or the Government itself.
The Court of Final Appeal is the highest appellate
court in the HKSAR. The court is headed by the Chief Justice. There are
three permanent judges and a panel of eight non-permanent Hong Kong judges
and 10 non-permanent judges from other common law jurisdictions. In hearing
and determining appeals, the court will consist of five judges, and the
court may, as required, invite a non-permanent Hong Kong judge or a non-permanent
judge from other common law jurisdictions to sit on the court. The Chief
Justice is the head of the Judiciary. He is assisted in the overall administration
by the Judiciary Administrator.
The High Court, comprising the Court of Appeal and
the Court of First Instance, is headed by the Chief Judge of the High
Court. Sitting in the High Court, in addition to the Chief Judge are nine
Justices of Appeal and 25 Judges of the Court of First Instance. The Registrar,
Senior Deputy Registrars and Deputy Registrars of the High Court serve
as Masters of the High Court in civil trials in the Court of First Instance.
The Court of Appeal hears civil and criminal appeals
from the Court of First Instance and the District Court. The Court of
First Instance's jurisdiction is unlimited in both civil and criminal
matters. Civil matters are usually tried by Court of First Instance Judges
sitting without juries, although there is a rarely used provision for
jury trials in certain cases, including defamation. For criminal trials,
they sit with a jury of seven, or sometimes nine on special direction
of the Judge.
The District Court is one level below the Court of
First Instance. It has a Chief District Judge and 33 Judges, who sit without
a jury in both criminal and civil cases. The Court's Registrar and Deputy
Registrars serve as Masters of the District Court to deal with interlocutory
and taxation matters. The District Court tries the more serious criminal
cases except murder, manslaughter and rape. The maximum term of imprisonment
is seven years. The District Court's civil jurisdiction is limited to
disputes with a monetary value of up to $1,000,000, or recovery of possession
of land of rateable value up to $240,000. It has jurisdiction over employees'
compensation cases. Its family jurisdiction involves divorce, custody
and adoption matters. It also has an appellate jurisdiction over stamp
The Magistrates' Courts process about 90 per cent
of the cases in Hong Kong annually. Led by the Chief Magistrate, the team
consists of eight Principal Magistrates, 67 Permanent Magistrates and
nine Special Magistrates sitting in nine different locations.
Magistrates exercise criminal jurisdiction over a
wide range of offences. In general, their sentencing power is limited
to two years' imprisonment and a fine of $100,000. Specific statutory
provisions empower magistrates to impose sentences up to three years'
imprisonment and a fine of $5 million. Magistrates also handle cases in
the Juvenile Courts, which deal with offences, except homicide, committed
by children and young persons below 16 years of age. Special Magistrates
handle minor offences such as littering and traffic contraventions. Their
sentencing power is limited to a maximum fine of $50,000 or as specified
in their warrants of appointment.
In addition, there are five tribunals. The Lands Tribunal
handles tenancy claims, rating and valuation appeals, applications for
the compulsory sale of buildings for redevelopment, and compensation assessments
when land is resumed by the Government or reduced in value by development.
The Labour Tribunal handles claims arising from contracts of employment.
The Small Claims Tribunal handles civil claims up to $50,000. The Obscene
Articles Tribunal determines whether articles are obscene or indecent.
It also classifies articles submitted by people, such as authors and publishers.
The Coroner's Court conducts inquests and inquires into the causes of
and circumstances connected with a death.
In accordance with the Basic Law and the Official
Languages Ordinance, the courts can use either or both of the official
languages in any proceedings.