UK Judges Quit $51,000-a-Month Job at HK Court as Scrutiny Rises

(Bloomberg) -- Two former UK judges resigned from Hong Kong’s top court as the city’s judiciary comes under growing scrutiny over its role in Beijing’s crackdown on dissent in the former British colony.

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Lord Jonathan Sumption and Lord Lawrence Collins, who were former judges on the UK Supreme Court, tendered their resignations to the leader of the once-freewheeling Chinese territory, the city’s government said in a statement on Thursday. Their exits added to two earlier departures in 2022 and left only three UK judges on Hong Kong’s highest court, thinning the ranks of overseas judges seen as a symbol of judicial independence in the finance hub.

“I have resigned from the Court of Final Appeal because of the political situation in Hong Kong,” Collins said in a statement, adding that he continued to have the “fullest confidence” in the court and the independence of its members. Sumption said he would comment on his resignation next week.

A Common Law jurisdiction, Hong Kong has touted its appointment of prominent overseas judges to the court as a feature that testifies to its independent judiciary after it returned to Chinese rule in 1997. But critics have increasingly accused foreign judges of helping Beijing silence the city’s once-vocal political opposition even though they don’t rule on sensitive national security cases.

The UK government withdrew two top judges from Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal in 2022, citing the risk of “legitimizing oppression.” Last month, the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation, an advocacy group, published a report calling for an end to the appointment of foreign judges to the court and for members of the UK’s House of Lords to declare their financial interests from Hong Kong.

Overseas non-permanent judges are normally invited to sit in the Court of Final Appeal on four-week stints. They receive the same salary as that of a permanent judge, about HK$400,000 ($51,200), proportional to their length of service in addition to air fares and accommodation.

In multiple statements issued early Friday, the Hong Kong government expressed regret at the two recent resignations and vowed to uphold judicial independence.

In response to Collins’ claim he resigned for political reasons, Chief Executive John Lee said the city’s national security laws are necessary to plug a “loophole” in the wake of large-scale, sometimes violent protests in 2019.

“Hong Kong has transitioned from chaos to order. That did not change the human rights and freedoms enjoyed by citizens in accordance with the law. Nor did it change the courts’ exercise of independent judicial power, free from any interference,” Lee said in a statement.

The Financial Times reported the resignations earlier.

Eight overseas non-permanent justices remain on the top court, comprising three from the UK, four from Australia and one from Canada.

In a separate statement Friday, Hong Kong’s chief justice, Andrew Cheung, expressed “complete confidence that the CFA will continue to fully perform its constitutional role as the final appellate court in Hong Kong.” He said the court will continue to recruit overseas judges.

(Updates with more context)

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