Hong Kong’s first chief justice after the end of British rule has called on the city to be prepared for fewer overseas judges serving in the highest local court as a long-term reality that should not affect high standards.
Andrew Li Kwok-nang, who presided over the judiciary from 1997 to 2010, said it was “regrettable” that the UK on Wednesday withdrew its last two serving judges from Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal in a move that the city’s officials and legal heavyweights have condemned as politically driven.
“The decision of the UK Supreme Court to withdraw [the two judges] is regrettable,” Li said in a statement to the Post on Thursday.
“But times have moved on and circumstances have changed. In the longer term, we have to be prepared that the level of participation of the overseas non-permanent judges may not be the same as before,” he added.
“However, I am confident that this would not affect the quality of the Court of Final Appeal since there is now considerable depth of talent in our judiciary and legal profession.”
Britain’s top judicial body withdrew Lords Robert Reed and Patrick Hodge from Hong Kong on Wednesday, citing concerns over the national security legislation imposed by Beijing and ending a long-standing arrangement that stood as a strong endorsement of the city’s rule of law.
Lord Reed, the UK Supreme Court president, said in a statement he had submitted his resignation together with vice-president Lord Hodge to the Hong Kong government with immediate effect.
But Li noted that a significant part of Lord Reed’s statement was his recognition that “the courts in Hong Kong continue to be internationally respected for their commitment to the rule of law”.
In September 1997, Li reached an agreement with Lord Chancellor Lord Irvine, head of the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords, the predecessor of the Supreme Court, under which two serving judges of the UK’s highest court would serve as overseas non-permanent judges in Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal.
The agreement was part of the UK’s continuing commitment to safeguarding the rule of law in Hong Kong.
“The participation of overseas non-permanent judges in the Court of Final Appeal has many advantages: ensuring the benefit of comparative perspectives and experience, enjoying the confidence of all concerned and enhancing confidence in the independence of our judiciary,” Li said, adding that he had hoped this unique arrangement would continue in the coming years and beyond 2047, 50 years after Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule.
Li said he was confident the city’s judges would not waver from the commitment to uphold the rule of law and judicial independence.
Lords Reed and Hodge were previously among eight British judges serving in the Court of Final Appeal. Six of the other appointees are retired and will not be affected by the withdrawal, with non-permanent judge Lord Jonathan Sumption having previously said he would stay on.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor had earlier on Thursday accused Britain of undermining judicial independence, saying the move was “politically planned”, and calling the country’s concerns over the national security law “disturbing”.