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A Brief Introduction of the Legal Departments in Hong Kong

Updated: Jul 16, 2022

The Rule of Law [1]

Hong Kong is a society governed by the rule of law, which is considered to be the cornerstone of a civilised, safe and orderly society in Hong Kong. Then, what is the rule of law?

According to a 2008 publication “The Legal System in Hong Kong” by the Department of Justice, the rule of law refers to the fundamental legal principles that govern the exercise of power in the HKSAR. Under the Hong Kong Government system, no person (including the Chief Executive) may do anything that would constitute a legal wrong or affect the personal liberty of another unless there is a legal basis for doing so. If the person doing the act cannot show that there is a legal basis for the act, the person affected may have recourse to the courts, which may rule that the act is invalid and has no legal effect and order that the person affected be compensated for his or her loss. This principle of the rule of law is known as the principle of legality.

Legality and equality before the law are two essential elements of the rule of law. Article 25 of the Basic Law guarantees that all Hong Kong residents shall be equal before the law, and that no one is above the law. Furthermore, in accordance with Articles 82 and 85 of the Basic Law, the HKSAR shall be vested with independent judicial power, including that of final adjudication, free from any interference.

Magistrates‘ Court

Magistrates handle criminal trials for both indictable and summary offThe maximum sentence in Magistrates’ Court is normally 2 years imprisonment and $100,000 fine. However, up to 3 years imprisonment may be imposed when two or more indictable offences are dealt with at the same time, while under some Ordinances, a single offence may carry 3 years imprisonment and a fine of $5 million.

Minor offences such as hawking, traffic contraventions and littering are heard in the Magistrates' Courts by Special Magistrates. Special Magistrates cannot impose a prison sentence and the normal maximum fine is $50,000 except where a greater sum is specifically provided for in any ordinance relating to the offence. Meanwhile, offences that are more indictable, are often referred to the District Court or the High Court.

The District Court

The District Court has both criminal and civil jurisdiction. Moreover, it may try all serious criminal cases except murder, manslaughter and rape. For criminal jurisdiction, it deals with indictable offences transferred to it from the Magistrates’ Courts. For civil jurisdiction, the District Court deals with cases such as contract and tort.

The District Court hears civil disputes of a value over $75,000 but not more than $3 million. Its criminal jurisdiction is limited to 7 years’ imprisonment and the trial judge has the final decision as to whether a case is conducted in Chinese or English.

High Court [2]

The High Court tries both cases of the first trials and appeals. It is constituted of two parts, the Court of First Instance and the Court of Appeal. The Court of First Instance handles criminal and civil cases. Serious criminal offences like murder and rape are tried here. Civil crimes such as tort and breach of contract are also tried in the High Court. If the defendant disagrees with the previous verdict, he is entitled to apply for an appeal and to review the verdict once again. If the defendant is still dissatisfied with the result of the appeal, he can apply for an appeal again in the Court of Final Appeal.

The Court of Final Appeal [3]

The court was established on 1 July 1997, upon the commencement of the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal Ordinance (Cap.484). It replaced the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London as the highest appellate court in Hong Kong after 30 June 1997.

The Court of Final Appeal is the final appellate court within the court system of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. It hears appeals on civil and criminal matters from the High Court (the Court of Appeal and the Court of First Instance).The court hears appeals involving important questions of law, including in particular points of public and constitutional importance, or where leave to appeal has otherwise been granted for some special reason.



First trial


the Court of First Instance


the Court of Appeal


Criminal Offence




Breach of Contract




"The Legal System in Hong Kong"


the Department of Justice


Legal wrong


Legal basis


Recourse to the courts


Free from any interference





Contributed by:

WU Man Yan, Evelyn

LAM Pui Yi, Michelle

LAM Tsz Yau, Eunice

Ng Wing Kiu, Vicky

KUAN Chi Hang, Eddie

Edited by:

Dr Janice Pan


“District Court”. The Judiciary of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China.

Hong Kong Judiciary: Court of FInal Appeal. (2017). Hong Kong Judiciary. Retrieved from

Hong Kong Judiciary: High Court. (2018). Hong Kong Judiciary. Retrieved from

The rule of law”. The Department of Justice.

“What is the Structure of Hong Kong Courts?”. The Judiciary of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. en/about_us/guide.html#1



1. “The rule of law”. (2020). The Department of Justice. Retrieved from

2. Hong Kong Judiciary: High Court. (2018). Hong Kong Judiciary. Retrieved from

3. Hong Kong Judiciary: Court of FInal Appeal. (2017). Hong Kong Judiciary. Retrieved from

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