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Who established the Law Courts?

Central Magistracy Illustration

The port of Hong Kong in its early years drew many robbers and pirates, and public safety was constantly under threat. In the beginning, arrested Chinese were handed over to the Chinese Yamen to be tried under the law of the Qing imperial court. Later, as the crime rate soared, the British changed its attitude and began conducting trials on cases involving the Chinese.

In 1843, the British relocated its criminal and admiralty court of justice from Guangzhou to Hong Kong, which became responsible for trying criminal cases involving British nationals on Hong Kong Island and in China. At the time, Henry Pottinger, the first Governor of Hong Kong and Chief Superintendent of the Trade of British Subjects in China, became the Chief Magistrate, and Major General George Charles D’Aguilar became the Deputy Magistrate. Courts were conducted according to British Martial Law.

In August 1844, the High Court of Hong Kong was formally established. British Judge J. W. Hulme was appointed first Chief Justice. On 2 October in the same year, courts were opened and cases were tried according to British Law. This symbolized the independence of the judiciary system in Hong Kong from the executive organs.

The High Court was the judiciary organization of the highest order in Hong Kong and was responsible for trying all major local cases. It also oversaw major cases in all trade ports of China involving British nationals. The Magistracy remained in operation, but only tried minor criminal cases involving local Chinese.

In the early years, the Chief Justice was also a member of the Legislative Council. In 1889, the Hong Kong Government decided that the Chief Justice should no longer be involved in the legislative process, hence the formation of the partite political system.

In the beginning the Magistracy was attached to the Victoria Gaol in Old bailey Street. In around 1847 a 2-storey Central Magistracy Building was built at Arbuthnot Road. In 1913, the Magistracy was rebuilt due to a lack in space. As the soil at the site was lined with hard granite, the foundation works were delayed and the building was completed in 1914. It was named Central Magistracy. The first case was tried at the Central Magistracy on 24 April 1915.

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