UK judge says Hong Kong rule of law in 'danger' as third justice quits

UK judge says Hong Kong rule of law in 'danger' as third justice quits
Judges wearing robes and horsehair wigs attend a ceremony held to mark the opening of the legal year in Hong Kong on January 22, 2024. (Photo by Peter PARKS / AFP)


A senior British judge who resigned last week from Hong Kong's top court warned Monday that rule of law in the financial hub was in "grave danger" due to the political environment created by China.


The opinion piece by Jonathan Sumption, published in the Financial Times, comes the same day that Beverley McLachlin announced her resignation from Hong Kong's Court of Final Appeal, citing her wish to spend more time with family.


McLachlin, 80, is the third overseas judge to announce a departure over the past week, following resignations by Sumption, 75, and Lawrence Collins, 83 -- both former justices of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.


Collins had cited Hong Kong's "political situation" after his Thursday resignation, while Sumption on Monday wrote in FT that it was "no longer realistic" for overseas judges to remain in Hong Kong's top court.


"Intimidated or convinced by the darkening political mood, many judges have lost sight of their traditional role as defenders of the liberty of the subject," Sumption wrote.


"Hong Kong, once a vibrant and politically diverse community is slowly becoming a totalitarian state," he said, adding that local judges were caught "in an impossible political environment created by China".


"The rule of law is profoundly compromised in any area about which the government feels strongly," Sumption wrote.


Judges from common law jurisdictions are invited to sit as non-permanent members at Hong Kong's top court, which is separate from mainland China's opaque, party-controlled legal system.


Their appointments "help maintain a high degree of confidence in (Hong Kong's) judicial system" and enable the former British colony to keep strong ties with other common law jurisdictions, city leader John Lee had said in March.


The resignations of Collins, Sumption and McLachlin were the first since the city enacted a national security law in March -- which followed previous legislation imposed by Beijing in 2020 to quell dissent.


Seven overseas non-permanent judges -- three from the UK and four from Australia -- remain at Hong Kong's Court of Final Appeal following the three resignations.


"I continue to have confidence in the members of the Court, their independence, and their determination to uphold the rule of law," McLachlin said in her statement Monday, adding she will retire when her term ends at the end of July.


The Hong Kong government said in a statement early Tuesday it "strongly disapproves" of Sumption's opinions and criticised his editorial as a "betrayal against Hong Kong's judges".


It meanwhile thanked McLachlin, the former chief justice of Canada, for her "objective assessment" of the city's rule of law.


Lee said in the statement that the city's prosecution and judiciary have been working independently without any interference.


"The rule of law in Hong Kong has been, is and will continue to be as strong as gold," Lee said.