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2 British judges resign from Hong Kong’s top court in shock move

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The other judge, Jonathan Sumption, told the Post he would make a statement next week regarding his resignation.

Lawrence Collins. Photo: UK Parliament

The judiciary confirmed that the two non-permanent judges had tendered their resignations to the chief executive. It said the chief justice would shortly issue a statement in response.

A government source described the resignations as an “unfortunate event”.

“You can tell how these foreign judges are being sandwiched in these complicated geopolitical situations,” the source said.

Hong Kong, the only common law jurisdiction in China, is permitted to recruit judges from elsewhere under the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution. The tradition is seen as an indicator of confidence in the city’s rule of law.

That confidence was shaken after two overseas non-permanent members – veteran Australian justice James Spigelman and former top British judge Baroness Brenda Hale – resigned following the enactment of the Beijing-decreed national security law in 2020.

Jonathan Sumption. Photo: HKCFA

In 2021, Sumption defended the city’s judicial independence, making clear he intended to continue serving in the top court and would not bow to demands by British lawmakers for Western judges to resign.

He had said the “permanent judiciary of Hong Kong is completely committed to judicial independence and the rule of law”, and the “Chinese and Hong Kong governments have so far done nothing to interfere with the independence of the judiciary”.

The United Kingdom controversially pulled Supreme Court president Lord Robert Reed and vice-president Lord Patrick Hodge from the Hong Kong court in 2022.

Sumption, 75, joined Hong Kong’s top court in 2019, and had served as a justice of the UK’s Supreme Court between 2012 and 2018.

Collins, 83, had served on the Court of Final Appeal since 2011, according to the Hong Kong judiciary’s website. Before that, he sat on the UK’s Supreme Court from 2009 to 2011.

Executive Council member Ronny Tong Ka-wah, a barrister by profession, said it was “most unfortunate that these judges finally appeared to succumb to what I believe to be immense pressure from the UK”.

Tong said everyone in Hong Kong, especially foreign investors and businesspeople, knew the city was governed under the “one country, two systems” principle and would in any event strive to live by the rule of law, demonstrated by the city’s judgments and open trial system.

The Court of Final Appeal in Central. Photo: Yik Yeung-man

In March this year, Australian justice Anthony Gleeson, 88, also an overseas non-permanent judge, resigned from the Court of Final Appeal because of his age.

The judiciary said at the time that the city’s top court faced “no significant impact” on its operations.

Of the eight remaining overseas non-permanent justices sitting on the top court, three are from Britain, four from Australia and one from Canada. Their ages range from 71 to 90.

The three British judges that remain on the top court are David Edmond Neuberger, Nicholas Addison Phillips and Leonard Hubert Hoffmann.

In hearings and for determining an appeal, the top court is constituted by five judges, comprising the chief justice, three permanent judges and an non-permanent one from the city or another common law jurisdiction.

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