Two UK Judges Resigned from Hong Kong’s Courts

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Two senior British judges, Lords Lawrence Collins and Jonathan Sumption, have resigned from Hong Kong’s highest court, citing concerns over the political situation in the city. Their departures come in the wake of a landmark case where 14 democracy activists were convicted of subversion, intensifying fears over the erosion of judicial independence under China’s influence.

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The two former UK Supreme Court justices were part of a group of 10 overseas judges serving on Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal, a legacy of the city’s colonial past. Legal experts and Western governments have raised alarms about the rule of law in Hong Kong, especially after China imposed stringent security laws that critics argue stifle dissent. The Hong Kong government, however, maintains that the city remains a top jurisdiction for law and order.

Lord Collins, who had served on the court since 2012, cited “the political situation in Hong Kong” as his reason for stepping down, though he expressed continued confidence in the court’s independence. Lord Sumption did not provide a public statement. Their resignations follow those of three other high-profile Western judges in recent years, highlighting the growing unease within the international legal community.

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Hong Kong’s leader, John Lee, expressed regret over the resignations but emphasized Lord Collins’ remarks about the remaining judges’ independence. He defended the city’s security laws, claiming they had restored order without compromising human rights and judicial independence.

How Hong Kong Courts Operate

Currently, the Court of Final Appeal includes eight overseas judges from the UK, Australia, and Canada. Typically, appeal cases are heard by a bench comprising the chief justice, three Hong Kong judges, and one foreign judge. This structure, established after the UK handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997, was intended to uphold the British-style common law system and enhance Hong Kong’s status as a global financial hub. However, recent developments have cast doubt on this system’s integrity.

The Impact of National Security Laws

The imposition of two national security laws (NSL) in 2020 and March 2023 has been particularly contentious. Critics argue these laws have undermined rights and freedoms protected under Hong Kong’s Basic Law. Hundreds of people have been arrested under the NSL, with many denied legal rights such as bail and facing lengthy pre-trial detentions.

Other Foreign Judges’ Resignations

In 2020, Australian judge James Spigelman resigned from the Court of Final Appeal, citing concerns over the NSL. In 2022, UK Supreme Court justices Robert Reed and Patrick Hodge also resigned, agreeing with the British government’s view that their continued service would appear to endorse a government departing from values of political freedom and expression.

Despite these resignations, the remaining foreign judges had defended their decision to stay, arguing their participation was in the best interest of Hong Kong’s people. However, increasing pressure and criticism have made their positions more tenuous.

The Broader Implications

The recent resignations reflect broader concerns about judicial independence in Hong Kong. A 2022 legal opinion signed by several senior legal figures, including former UK attorney-general Sir Robert Buckland, warned that overseas judges were being used to lend credibility to a compromised legal system. Alvin Cheung, a former Hong Kong barrister, has criticized these judges for believing they could exert a moderating influence, suggesting their roles were more symbolic than impactful.

Hong Kong authorities, however, continue to assert the integrity of their courts. Chief Justice Andrew Cheung stated that the courts would remain committed to administering justice without fear or favor, and that the resignations would not affect the court’s functioning.

As Hong Kong navigates these judicial challenges, the departure of such prominent judges underscores the growing international concern over the city’s legal and political future.

Written by Influencer Editorial Team

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