Wednesday, 6 July, 2022

Two UK judges resign from Hong Kong's top court

LONDON: Two UK Supreme Court judges resigned Wednesday from Hong Kong's top court, as the government in London said it was "no longer tenable" for its judges to serve in the former colony, reports AFP.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said senior UK judges continuing their roles risked "legitimising oppression" following the imposition of China's controversial national security law in 2020.

The decision by Britain -- which handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997 -- could pressure Australia and Canada, which also have judges on the court, to follow suit.

"The situation has reached a tipping point where it is no longer tenable for British judges to sit on Hong Kong's leading court, and would risk legitimising oppression," Truss said.

"We have seen a systematic erosion of liberty and democracy in Hong Kong," she added, noting the authorities there had "cracked down on free speech, the free press and free association".

Under Hong Kong's mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law, senior judges from common law jurisdictions are invited by the territory to sit as non-permanent members of its Court of Final Appeal.

Eight of the current 12 are British, with two of them serving members of the UK Supreme Court, and operate with the endorsement of the British government.

The Supreme Court pair -- its president Robert Reed, and fellow judge Patrick Hodge -- have submitted their resignations with immediate effect.

"The judges of the Supreme Court cannot continue to sit in Hong Kong without appearing to endorse an administration which has departed from values of political freedom, and freedom of expression," Reed said.

Truss said the UK government had decided to withdraw its endorsement of the judges in Hong Kong following consultations with the Supreme Court and ministers responsible for the judiciary.

"Established rights and freedoms are now sadly deteriorating, meaning Her Majesty's government can no longer endorse serving judges on the court of final appeal here," UK Consul General to Hong Kong Brian Davidson tweeted.

However it was unclear when, or even if, the remaining six British judges not currently members of the UK Supreme Court would also be resigning.

A spokesman for Lennie Hoffmann, a retired British judge and House of Lords member first appointed to the Hong Kong court in 1998, said he had "taken note" of his two colleagues' resignations.

"(He) will take it into account in deciding what to do," the spokesman added.

Benedict Rogers, head of the UK-based rights group Hong Kong Watch, said Reed and Hodge had "done the right thing" and hoped "the remaining foreign judges will follow suit".

Eric Lai, a legal scholar at Georgetown University, told AFP that the remaining foreign judges -- who are mostly retired and not serving on courts in their homelands -- will have to weigh the degree of political pressure to withdraw.

But he added there was "no doubt that the remaining judges would rethink their position(s) and decision in Hong Kong's Court of Final Appeal in light of the ongoing political repression in Hong Kong".

Hong Kong's Law Society, whose leadership is largely pro-government, described Wednesday's two resignations as "a matter of deep regret".

"Unfair and unfounded accusations, especially those based on prejudice and political motives, against the judicial system of Hong Kong have no place in the discussion about the rule of law and judicial independence," its president CM Chan said.

Meanwhile former Hong Kong leader CY Leung described the decision as "despicable".

"The UK government has been imposing pressure for a long time, forcing judges to resign," he wrote on Facebook.

"It's an unwashable stain on the UK's own judicial independence."

Hong Kong Watch's policy director Johnny Patterson said the developments represented a "blow" to the territory's leaders and damaged its status as an international city.

"The judges were providing a veneer of respectability," he told AFP.

"It's a sign that you can't have your cake and eat it when it comes to the National Security Law."