Former chief justice Beverley McLachlin to step down from controversial Hong Kong court

Beverley McLachlin, former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, is  retiring from the controversial Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Beverley McLachlin, former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, is retiring from the controversial Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada Beverley McLachlin has announced her retirement from the controversial Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal.

McLachlin, 80, joined the court in 2018. She said she'll be stepping down from the bench to spend more time with her family when her term ends on July 29, 2024.

"It has been a privilege serving the people of Hong Kong," McLachlin said in a media statement. "I continue to have confidence in the members of the court, their independence and their determination to uphold the rule of law."

The court was established in July 1997 to replace the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London as the highest appellate court in the former British colony, now a special administrative region of China.

The court can have up to 30 non-permanent judges at any one time. At present there are three non-permanent Hong Kong judges and 12 non-permanent common law judges, including McLachlin.

Since joining the court, McLachlin has faced numerous calls to step down over criticism of Hong Kong's controversial national security law, passed in 2020, and Article 23, passed earlier this year.

The 2020 national security law covered four areas of criminal activity: secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign or external forces. Those convicted of such crimes face maximum sentences of life imprisonment.

The law also allowed China to establish a national security agency in Hong Kong that is not under the jurisdiction of the Hong Kong government.

After it was passed, Australian judge James Spigelman resigned from the court for reasons he said were "related to the content of the national security legislation."

'The court is completely independent': McLachlin

Article 23 expanded the government's power to stamp out future challenges to its rule, allowing it to punish acts of treason or insurrection with sentences up to life imprisonment.

The law also included stiff prison terms for other offences, including up to 20 years for espionage and up to 10 years for the unlawful disclosure of state secrets.

McLachlin has pushed back against critics who accuse the court of propping up the government in Hong Kong and contributing to an erosion of basic human rights and declining judicial independence.

WATCH: Canada's former chief justice responds to criticism of Hong Kong's highest court

"That's just when you need courts, when you have laws like this, when you have governments that might need checking," she told CBC News Network's Power & Politics in 2022.

"The court is completely independent and functioning in the way I am used to in Canada. The court is functioning. There's no governmental influence, and if there were I wouldn't be there."

McLachlin's announcement came just days after two former judges from the U.K., Lawrence Collins and Jonathan Sumption, resigned their seats on the bench.

The BBC reported last week that while Justice Collins said he was resigning "because of the political situation in Hong Kong," he added he continued to have "the fullest confidence in the court." The BBC said Sumption did not issue a statement or reply to interview requests after his resignation.

The tone was different in 2022 when British judges Robert Reed and Patrick Hodge stepped down from the bench.

"I have concluded, in agreement with the government, that the judges of the Supreme Court cannot continue to sit in Hong Kong without appearing to endorse an administration which has departed from values of political freedom and freedom of expression," Reed said after stepping down.

Elizabeth Truss, the British foreign secretary at the time, said it was "no longer tenable" to have Reed or Hodge on the Hong Kong court due to China's ongoing efforts to undermine "fundamental rights and freedoms" in Hong Kong.