Face to Face with Frank Stock, Former Vice-President of the Court of Appeal

Justice Frank Stock, recently retired Vice-President of the Hong Kong Court of Appeal, shares lessons he has gathered over the course of his long and distinguished legal career as well as his hopes for the next generation of lawyers.

From his time as a barrister in private practice in the UK to his work as judge on the Court of Appeal, Justice Frank Stock contends that his biggest achievement has been choosing a career which he always wished to pursue and which, in the course of, he has truly enjoyed.

As we sit in his Chambers, which he has commenced packing since his retirement in June, Stock says he has been lucky with the way the cards have fallen. “I knew from an early age that I wanted to be an advocate and that is how I started my professional life. I was lucky later in other capacities to be exposed to intensely stimulating work.”

As our conversation unfolds over coffee and intermittent jokes, Stock shares how his upbringing in Africa not only ignited a desire in him to be an advocate, but also indelibly shaped his understanding of the danger of equating the mere existence of laws with the rule of law.

Upbringing in Africa

Stock was born and raised in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) and often visited South Africa – so he grew up in societies where he witnessed daily personal affronts to human dignity. In his view, it is the right to individual dignity which is at the core of all fundamental rights.

“In this context,” he says “advocacy in the courts was one of the few vehicles to seek redress for grievances, and from an early age, I wanted to be an advocate though none of my family of previous generations had been lawyers.”

Life in the UK

Stock remained in Rhodesia for a short while to attend the University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, as it was then called. But as the University lacked a law faculty, he ultimately decided to move to the UK to study law, with a view of going to the Bar in England & Wales.

His transition to life in the UK was not as smooth as he had hoped. “Living in the UK was a much bigger cultural challenge than I had anticipated. It wasn’t so much a cultural challenge as a weather challenge. I couldn’t stand the weather in England,” Stock said with a smirk.

“And in a way, studying in the UK was less exciting than studying in Rhodesia because the political issues with which students were engaged in Rhodesia were much more vibrant and alive than I sensed those were in the UK,” he explained.

“But the opportunity to study and practise law in the UK was a great privilege. The UK is a highly professional legal hub. I was at the heart of things in a place that had hundreds of years of tradition. I liked the tradition and the professional ethos. Although I was homesick for Africa for quite some time, I enjoyed studying and practising law there.”

After being called to the Bar in England & Wales in 1968, Stock started his career as a barrister in the UK where he remained in private practice for 10 years.

Moving to Hong Kong

While the decision was a complex one, Stock moved to Hong Kong in 1978 to join the then Attorney General’s Chambers as Crown Counsel. During his time in those Chambers, Stock was rapidly promoted. He was appointed to Principal Crown Counsel in 1984, and in 1985, he was appointed Queen’s Counsel.

In 1986, he took up the position of Solicitor General. Stock found much satisfaction in this role because it allowed him to witness at first-hand policy-making and diplomacy during a fascinating time in Hong Kong’s history.

As Solicitor General, Stock tackled complex legal issues to prepare for Hong Kong’s transition from a British colony to a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. Some of the most memorable work he recalls involved heading a legal team responsible for working on a framework for future extradition arrangements between Hong Kong (arrangements which would be made with the authority of the Central Government) and foreign jurisdictions. His experiences triggered in him an interest in Chinese history, some understanding of which seems to him to be essential in order to appreciate important historical sensitivities.

Stock was also asked to head a team responsible for providing legal advice in relation to the proposed Bill of Rights Ordinance, and in 1991, appeared before the United Nation’s Human Rights Committee in New York. His work was instrumental in getting the Bill off the ground.

In 1992, Stock joined the judiciary as a High Court Judge. He said that the most difficult challenge that he faced in his career was the adjustment from the role of a practising lawyer to that of a judge. “I am a gregarious person and an advocate at heart, and against that backdrop, I found the solitude of judging difficult.”

Despite the challenges, Stock found his feet and was elevated to the Court of Appeal in 2000. In 2009, he was appointed Vice President of the Court of Appeal and one year later, was made a non-permanent judge of the Court of Final Appeal.

Champion for Justice

Throughout his career, Stock has been an ardent champion for justice, reminding the legal profession on his last day as a full-time judge in the Court of Appeal of its commitment to maintaining the rule of law and an independent judiciary.

It is evident that Stock is acutely aware of what is required to uphold the rule of law. “When one lives in a free society,” he explains, “it is no less important to appreciate not only what the rule of law, properly understood, means but also why it is that the rule of law is so important. It is much more complex a concept in its reach than is often assumed.”

Stock says his upbringing in Africa created in him a consciousness of the hollowness and danger of equating the mere existence of laws with the rule of law. In a speech he delivered in 2008 in celebration of the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Stock expounded:

Those of us who live in societies where the common law is entrenched, where there is in fact an independent judiciary, and where basic courtesies and freedoms appear to be extended between man and man, take these things perhaps for granted. There is a need for us as judges and as practitioners and as students, as governmental authorities and as a community at large from time to time not to make assumptions but to stand back, go back to square one and to examine fundamentals; to understand the Ciceronian truism that we must all be slaves to the law in order to be free.

Stock says that in referring to the Ciceronian phrase, he had in mind a passage in an article by a South African professor of law cited in HKSAR v Leung Kwok Hung [2004] 3 HKLRD 729 at 777, which refers to a requirement as to the quality and not merely the existence of laws (ie, a quality designed to minimise the arbitrary exercise of power, for the arbitrary exercise of power is inimical to fundamental freedoms).

As for the independence of the judiciary, Stock says he does not have an iota of concern. “I am entirely confident that the judiciary will continue to be highly professional, and will continue to attract able people of integrity. As I said in a recent speech, protestations questioning the courts’ independence are easy to make but they can readily be tested by asking whether it is really thought that distinguished members of other jurisdictions would so much as contemplate sitting in this jurisdiction, as they currently do, unless they were entirely satisfied that this was a wholly independent judiciary.”

Criminal Justice Reform

Stock has pressed for criminal justice reform, having often directed criticism at practices that result, and are allowed to result, in substantial waste of public funds and in delays for those awaiting trial and appeals.

“This is,” he says, “a very serious problem indeed. The fault is multifaceted. It lies partly in the prolix conduct of cases by some practitioners and too frequently the pursuit of meritless grounds of appeal or in putting forward too many grounds of appeal where only one or two arguable grounds exist; and, conversely and worryingly, in the refusal of legal aid in too many appeals which, if nonetheless pursued, prove to be entirely meritorious. Fault also lies with lack of proper case management by some judicial officers. In this latter regard, there needs to be concentrated training of judicial skills in case management, as well as a framework of rules to assist judges in that task, a framework designed to enhance efficiency but with proper safeguards for the rights of accused persons.”

Stock has found attempts at creative reform to meet adverse knee-jerk reactions. “I know that I am not popular for my repeated strictures designed to encourage greater discipline in the practice of criminal law, but I would like to stress that it is not a judge’s job to court popularity. A judge’s job is to make a stand when he or she believes the public interest so requires; and I strongly believe that criminal justice reform in this jurisdiction is long overdue.”

As he reflects on his efforts, he concludes: “I have achieved nothing in that regard – perhaps because repetition has devalued the currency – and I don’t hold out much hope that anything will be done about it. I hope that I’m proved wrong.”

A Frank Assessment

Stock’s contemporaries find his most important judgments to represent a valuable compilation of Hong Kong’s landmark cases and legal history, praising his immense contributions in the civil and criminal law context, as well as in the context of insider trading. However, when asked what he believes his most significant achievements to be, Stock quips that it was his ability to create work for the Court of Final Appeal.

Continuing, he explains, “I have tried hard to encourage greater discipline in the practice of criminal law, but I fear that my repeated strictures in that regard have been unwelcome and they have certainly been unsuccessful, so it cannot be categorised as a contribution. Similarly, I had hoped that a particular judgment I delivered in 2008 about the need to do individual justice in sentencing convicted defendants might have led to some change in the over-rigid approach to mitigation and to sentencing, but the judgment was not reported.”

“I would like to think that with the advantage I had in the development of human rights law, one or two of my judgments may have put meat on some of the central principles, but that would have happened without me and in any event the most effective contribution is made by the Court of Final Appeal. So, all in all, I haven’t really made any special contribution.”

In spite of Stock’s frank assessment of his contributions, he says “it has been a privilege, and I mean privilege, to work in a judiciary with committed and highly professional judicial officers. I don’t say that as a matter of form; I mean it. Every level of this judiciary, from the highest courts to the magistracies, is filled with dedicated people of integrity with whom it has been such a pleasure to work.”

Hopes for the Next Generation

Stock believes his most significant achievement is choosing a career he really enjoyed and wished to pursue. “That may sound banal, but it is important. I worry that the choice by young people of studies and careers is too often dictated by conventional perceptions of success or by parental or peer pressure, spoken or unspoken, rather than by real interest or a sense of calling.”

He strongly believes that the younger generation should pursue studies and careers in spheres that really interest them or that fire their imaginations. “While work satisfaction may not be seen in the traditional sense as an achievement, in my book,” Stock says, “it’s a real plus.”

“Beyond that, young men and women should approach entry to the profession as the embrace of a calling, an honourable calling. If they do not, they should not be in the job. If they do, they will enjoy self-respect and self-respect is to be treasured.”

Editor, Hong Kong Lawyer
Legal Media Group
Thomson Reuters