HONG KONG – The President of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom said on Wednesday that he and his colleague resigned from their roles in the Hong Kong Supreme Court because the administration of Chinese territory “has departed from the values of political freedom and freedom of expression”.
Their resignation will strengthen control over Hong Kong’s British-style legal system, which the former British colony retained even after it returned to Chinese control in 1997. Although the system has long had a reputation for independence, Beijing is introducing a strict national security law. Hong Kong in 2020 put it under increasing pressure support government repression against dissent.
Judges from countries, including the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, served as non-permanent judges in Hong Kong’s Final Court of Appeal along with the city’s chief judge and other local judges. The agreement was designed to keep the legal system in touch with the wider world of common law even after regaining control of Beijing.
The resignations of the President of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom Robert Reed and Deputy President Patrick Hodge will add questions about the autonomy of the Hong Kong judiciary.
In a written statement, Lord Reed said that judges of the UK’s Supreme Court could not continue to sit in Hong Kong “without supporting an administration that departed from the values of political freedom and freedom of expression to which Supreme Court judges are deeply committed.”
The National Security Act’s question of whether such participation is in Britain’s national interest is “increasingly well-balanced,” he said, adding that Hong Kong courts “continue to enjoy international respect for their commitment to the rule of law.”
The resignation was supported by the British government, and Foreign Minister Liz Trass and Deputy Prime Minister Dominique Raab said they approved the move.
“The situation has reached a turning point, when British judges can no longer sit in the main court of Hong Kong and risk legitimizing oppression,” – said Ms. Trass. the statement said.
The Hong Kong government has expressed “strong opposition” to criticism of the city’s legal system and security law in a statement on Wednesday. He accused Britain itself of exerting political pressure on Hong Kong’s judicial system, arguing that debate in parliament on Wednesday about the role of British judges in Hong Kong “could have affected the resignation of two current UK judges”.
Andrew Chung, Chief Justice of Hong Kong, the statement said on Wednesday that the courts were committed to upholding the rule of law and the independence of the courts in the territory.
“This commitment is not completely affected by the departure of two judges,” he added.
The role of UK Supreme Court judges in Hong Kong’s Final Court of Appeal is unique because they act as judges at home. Other foreign judges of the Hong Kong court, including current members from the UK, Australia and Canada, are retired.
But the resignation of high-ranking British judges could force others to follow, legal experts say.
“It will affect a lot of public opinion, even if it’s not really true in terms of the state of justice in Hong Kong,” said Simon Young, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong.
“It’s a constant perception and reality – you see this big gap,” he added. “And then, of course, it puts other foreign judges in a difficult position because they’re asked, ‘If that’s true, why are you staying?’
James Spiegelman, a judge from Australia, stepped down from the Hong Kong Supreme Court in 2020, citing a security law.
More than 150 people have been arrested under the National Security Act since its introduction in 2020. Among them are Jimmy Lai, founder of the now-closed pro-democracy newspaper, and 47 of the city’s most prominent opposition politicians and activistswho were accused of trying to undermine the government by promising to block its agenda in the legislature.
The law has made some significant changes to Hong Kong’s system, including allowing the government to determine which judges will hear cases under the law, and severely limiting bail. Most of the politicians and activists charged under the law remain behind bars for more than a year.