world : 'Becoming a totalitarian state': UK judge on why he quit Hong Kong court

world : 'Becoming a totalitarian state': UK judge on why he quit Hong Kong court
world : 'Becoming a totalitarian state': UK judge on why he quit Hong Kong court

Wednesday 12 June 2024 10:51 PM

Nafeza 2 world - It is a holdover from Hong Kong’s past as a British colony.

After the UK handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997, the agreement between the countries stipulated that the special territory would continue to operate with its freedoms and systems for 50 years- including its common law legal system which operates in several other jurisdictions worldwide.

Currently there seven foreign judges remaining on the court– three British and four from Australia. Typically they are very experienced senior judges who have retired from their countries’ senior courts.

They operate as overseas non-permanent appointees; a typical appeal bench of five judges at the Court of Final Appeal will see a foreign judge hearing the case along with three other local judges.

Their presence was long seen as a sort of bulwark protection to help uphold the British-style common law legal system which has been key to Hong Kong’s stature as a global financial hub.

As recently as March this year, Hong Kong’s leader praised the foreign judges saying their appointments "help maintain a high degree of confidence in (Hong Kong's) judicial system". According to recent media reports, they are paid £40,000 per case, external.

Lord Sumption had said most of Hong Kong’s judges are “honourable people with all the liberal instincts of the common law.”

“But they have to operate in an impossible political environment created by China.”

Since Hong Kong’s security laws kicked in, rights groups, critics and even the UK government had questioned the foreign judges’ continued presence on the court.

In 2020, a senior Australian judge was the first to step down from the court. James Spigelman directly cited the impact of the wide-sweeping National Security Law which hadn’t kicked into operation yet.

Two years later, UK Supreme Court justices Robert Reed and Patrick Hodge also stepped down following concerns raised by the British government.

Lord Reed, the chief justice of the top UK court, said he agreed with the government that serving Supreme Court justices could not continue to serve in Hong Kong without appearing to endorse a government that had “departed from values of political freedom, and freedom of expression”.

The remaining judges on the court at the time – which included Lords Collins and Sumption – issued a statement shortly after defending their position.

They said they believed their “continued participation” would be “in the interest of the people of Hong Kong”.

But on Monday, Lord Sumption said he no longer believed this.

He told the BBC he had chosen to stay on the first few years "to see how things develop and to hope that one can make a positive contribution." He had written he hoped "the presence of overseas judges would help sustain the rule of law."

"It's taken a long time to conclude that that is not realistic."

His sharp criticism and the resignations of the other judges will further fuel concerns about Hong Kong’s status as an international city, particular as the latest resignations come just weeks after the city implemented a second, even more wide-scoping security law known as Article 23.

Legal scholar Eric Lai, told the BBC the two British judges had been “well known” for their support of Hong Kong’s legal system in the past and their commitment to the court in critical cases.

“Their change of mind to resign signals the worsening legal environment in HK,” he said.

But the city's authorities defend the integrity of their legal system.

The chief justice of the Court of Final Appeal said last week the court would continue to function regardless of the resignations.

Andrew Cheung stressed the court's independence: "All judges and judicial officers will continue to... administer justice in full accordance with the law, without fear or favour, self-interest or deceit".

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