(By Neville Sarony QC SC)
What: Hong Kong Bar Mess
Where: The Hong Kong Country Club
When: some years ago
Who: one High Court Judge in black tie and one QC in white dinner jacket
Judge: (Beckoning QC with right index finger) Waiter, I’ll have a gin and tonic.
QC: I’m sorry, Sir, we don’t serve coloureds.
There will be a plethora of tributes to Geoffrey Ma by legal luminaries who will recite his antecedents and memorable judgments. This is just an idiosyncratic picture of someone I have known over 34 years as a fellow barrister, a judge before whom I appeared, but essentially as a man.
He had the serious misfortune of growing up in the environs of Manchester, a city best known in England for its record rainfall and the dark hues of its architecture.
The late Mancunian comedian Billy Matchett’s catchphrase captured the essential schadenfreude in the oxymoron, “If you haven’t been to Manchester, you haven’t lived.”
Schooled close to that dark city, Geoff contracted the contagion of becoming a Manchester United supporter, an unfortunate condition from which he suffers to this day.
Presumably on the basis that any port in a storm will suffice, he chose to read law at Birmingham University.
Only an acutely tuned ear can discern the difference between a Mancunian and Brummie accent, but when he is wholly relaxed, Geoff’s speech lapses into an amalgam of the two.
The Bee Gees managed to disguise the Manchester accent by singing falsetto, one talent that our recently retired Chief Justice has yet to master.
It is often said that grim environments engender a sense of humour, as a prop to psychological wellbeing, which may be why Geoff is gifted with a profound sense of the comic.
I particularly enjoyed his account – delivered with the appropriate accents – of himself being trapped in a street by a crowd of Birmingham football hooligans, one of whom told his pals, “We’d better not mess with him, he probably knows kung fu!”
He also had the happy habit of rehearsing with me, jokes that he would like to have, but never included in his speech at the opening of the legal year.
He became Queen’s Counsel the year after I did, as one consequence of which, we were seated next to each other during the annual ceremony for the opening of the legal year.
Talking out of the sides of our mouths in whispers, we exchanged caustic comments on the speeches, providing ourselves with more entertainment than the various speakers.
When he was appointed to the High Court, I wrote complaining that now there would be no one with whom I could share the comic aspects of the ceremony.
To the great benefit of Hong Kong’s courts, Geoff took his sense of humour with him onto the bench.
It was always a pleasure to appear before a judge who was rightly confident of his abilities, and whose judicial demeanour engendered just the right atmosphere for a productive hearing.
The absence of pretension or a desire to demonstrate who is in charge enabled legal argument to be pursued constructively.
The consummate judge can season his or her conduct of the proceedings with gentle humour, a useful device in skilled hands to relieve a stressful environment or even to put nervous counsel more at ease.
Willingness to engage in open dialogue and listen patiently to counsel’s submissions, even when they verge on the absurd, are essential judicial qualities.
All the above are hallmarks of an outstanding judge and Geoff has them in spades.
All that needs to be said about the quality of his intellect is to direct the enquirer to any of his judgments, they are models of succinct clarity as distinct from the tome-length constructions of verbosity which, lamentably, are on the increase.
There ought to have been a mandatory requirement for all prospective judges to sit through a number of hearings over which he presided, so that they knew the standard to which they should aspire.
There are two particular aspects of Geoff’s 10 years in the Court of Final Appeal for which Hong Kong should be truly grateful: persuading members of the Bar to accept a judicial appointment and inviting the two most outstanding lady common law judges to sit as non-permanent judges on the CFA.
As to the first, the public is largely unaware that for a successful barrister to become a judge involves giving up a far higher income than that earned from practice at the private bar.
Nor is there a comparable increase in public standing to mitigate the loneliness of judicial office and the loss of the camaraderie of the bar.
In Dame Brenda Hale, ex-president of the UK’s Supreme Court, and Beverley McLachlin, ex-chief justice of Canada, the CFA has acquired two of the most powerful judicial minds of current times.
My only regret is that during his tenure, he did not appoint our first Hong Kong lady permanent judge of the CFA when there are certainly two worthy candidates.
The ignorant are often heard complaining that judges are too removed from ordinary life, leaving them out of touch with the realities. Anyone who has had dealings with Geoff, whether professionally or outside the parameters of the law can vouch for his accessibility and downright common sense.
Called to the bar of Gray’s Inn, of which he is an Honorary Bencher, he consistently supported the Inn’s members here in Hong Kong and strove to inculcate in young members of the bar the importance of a collegial profession.
I wish incoming Chief Justice Andrew Cheung a rewarding and successful tenure of office. Geoff will be a hard act to follow.
Going back to the start of this tribute, needless to say, Geoff didn’t get his G&T from me.