According to one early observer, magistrates in colonial Hong Kong ‘came more in contact with the mass of the people in the administration of law and justice than all the other officers of the Crown put together.’ The Magistracy was both dispenser of justice and instrument of control in a rapidly expanding and often unruly city. Thousands of ordinary men and women – in some years the equivalent of over 10% of the population – were taken before the magistrates for a wide variety of crimes and offences. Many, unable to pay their fines, ended up in prison.
Focusing mainly on the period 1841-1941, and on the Central Magistracy (now part of the Tai Kwun complex), this seminar discusses the important role of the Magistracy in administering justice, maintaining order, and protecting revenue in colonial Hong Kong. It examines its place in the judicial system and wider political economy. It traces the development of some of the laws enforced by magistrates, their impact, and the controversies surrounding them. It also explores the careers and reputations of some key magistrates. A final section outlines the expansion and development of magistrates’ courts in the decades after World War II.