Is a Justice of the Peace a Judge?

A revised version of this essay was published in The Standard (Student Edition),  17 September 2008, p. E05.

 Is a Justice of the Peace a Judge?

 Donnie DONG*

As an Andy Lau fan, I am delighted to hear that he was appointed a Justice of the Peace (JP, 太平紳士) by the Hong Kong government this July.[1] What exactly is a JP? Is a JP a Judge? Let’s review the story of JP and see what Andy is supposed to do in his new position.
 
In ancient Britain, the rule of law was not perfectly established, so the King had to look for reputable knights to keep the peace in unruly areas. Those knights, appointed as “Keepers of the Peace” (和平維護官),[2] were widely respected by the residents in their counties. In 1327, an Act referred to "good and lawful men" to be appointed in every county in the British land to "guard the peace".[3] They were called “Conservators of the Peace” (和平守護官).[4] As such they were authorized to curtail wanderers, dissipate all mutinous and riotous groups, and crack down on thieves and outlaws, and other persons disaffected to the peace. In 1361, their name was altered to “Justice of the Peace” because a statute authorized them to try (審理) the felonies (違法行爲) happening in their own communities.[5] We can conclude, therefore, that JPs were originally judges in the history of British judicial system.
 
During the colonial times (殖民時代), the British JP tradition had spread around the world. Many colonized countries and regions, such as Australia,[6] New Zealand,[7] Canada,[8] Malaysia,[9] certain states in the United States,[10] as well as Hong Kong,[11] had established their own systems of JP. However, the JP system in different countries began to evolve variously over time. In some countries, JPs still sit in the local courts hearing and judging cases,[12] while in other jurisdictions (法域) such as Hong Kong, the JP’s function of judging the cases has been taken over by full-time, legally-qualified magistrates (裁判官).The reason for this replacement is that the legal system has been more and more complicated, and only professional lawyers can ensure consistency in legal judgments. The result of this development is that in contemporary Hong Kong, JPs are actually not real judges.
 
Although the responsibility of hearing cases has been shifted to the magistrates, JPs are still very important to the peace of our society because they are all honourable persons with great influence over our communities.[13] According to the law, a JP may visit any custodial institution (羈押院所) or detained person (被羈押者) and receive complaints.[14] This is essential for protecting the human rights (人權) of the detained persons. In other words, as a JP, Andy Lau has the power to investigate any wrongful treatment of prisoners, juvenile offenders (少年犯) and mental patients, or he can refer the cases to the institutions concerned for follow-up actions.[15] That means he will not only act as heroes in movies, but also be a real guardian of justice for Hong Kong people.
 
“It was a great honour.” Andy said. Yes, indeed. I definitely agree with him, whether as his fan or as a lawyer.

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* Donnie DONG, PhD Candidate in City University of Hong Kong.
[1] G.N. (E.) 30 of 2008, in Gazette, No. 26 Vol. 12 (1 July 2008).
[2] James Birch Sharpe, An Inquiry Into the origin of the Office and Title of the Justice of the Peace (Shaw and Sons, 1841), p. ix.
[3] See Her Majesty’s Court Service, The History of Justices of the Peace (Magistrates) , available at http://www.hmcourts-service.gov.uk/aboutus/history/magistrates.htm.
[4] Sharpe, p. 108.
[5] Edward Hasted, The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent: Volume 1 (1797), pp. 215-221.
[6] See http://www.australia.gov.au/Justices_of_the_Peace.
[7] See Justice of the Peace Act 1957, New Zealand.
[8] See Justice of the Peace Act, R.S.N.W.T. 1988, c.J-3.
[9] The Justices of the Peace in Malaysia are appointed by states separately. See for example: http://www.jppenang.org/.
[10] Many states in the United States have their own system of Justice of the Peace, such as Arizona, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, and so forth.
[11] See Justices of the Peace ordinance, Hong Kong.
[12] For example, In Ontario (Canada), a justice of the peace has judicial jurisdiction throughout the province. See Justices of the Peace Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. J.4, s. 17 (1).
[13] For a list of JPs of Hong Kong, see http://www.info.gov.hk/jp/eng/JPList_g.htm.
[14] See Art. 5, Justices of the Peace ordinance, Hong Kong.
[15] See Administration Wing of the Chief Secretary for Administration’s Office, 2007 Annual Report on JP Visits, p. 3, available at http://www.info.gov.hk/jp/eng/anreport07_eng.pdf.

A revised version of this essay was published in The Standard (Student Edition),  17 September 2008, p. E05.