Hong Kong authorities rebut claims from outgoing UK judge that rule of law is under threat

The Hong Kong government has said it strongly disagrees with remarks from outgoing British judge Jonathan Sumption that the city’s rule of law is under threat, saying the local courts are not “under any political pressure” from Beijing.

City authorities issued a 2,900-word statement on Tuesday morning in response to a Financial Times opinion piece from the departing Court of Final Appeal non-permanent judge titled “The rule of law in Hong Kong is in grave danger”.

The government also confirmed that Beverley McLachlin, 80, would retire from her position on the Court of Final Appeal after her term ends this summer, with the Canadian becoming the third non-permanent judge to announce their departure in a week.

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Following Sumption’s opinion piece, authorities shot back at claims that local courts were under pressure.

“There is absolutely no truth that [Hong Kong] courts are under any political pressure from central authorities or the [Hong Kong government] in the adjudication of national security cases or indeed any case of any nature; or that there is any decline in the rule of law in Hong Kong,” a government spokesman said.

“Anyone who suggested otherwise, no matter what the reasons or motives may be, would be utterly wrong, totally baseless and must be righteously refuted.”

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

In his piece, Sumption wrote that judges in the city had to “operate in an impossible political environment created by China” and the rule of law was “profoundly compromised in any area about which the government feels strongly”.

But the government’s statement quoted Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu’s pledge that authorities had never and would not allow any interference with prosecutions or trials at court.

The city leader said authorities had always respected and safeguarded their independent prosecutorial and adjudication powers.

“This is how it was in the past, how it is at present, and how it will be in future. The rule of law in Hong Kong is strong and will not change,” Lee said.

Sumption also wrote that he had continued serving in the court for a time because he hoped the presence of overseas judges would help to sustain the rule of law.

“I fear that this is no longer realistic. Others are less pessimistic. I hope that they are proved right,” he said.

Judge Jonathan Sumption earlier announced he would be departing from Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal. Photo: Handout

The outgoing judge also described the conviction of 14 opposition figures in the city’s biggest and longest-running national security trial as “symptomatic of a growing malaise in the Hong Kong judiciary”.

Hong Kong’s once vibrant and politically diverse community was slowly becoming a “totalitarian state”, he said.

The government slammed the claim and argued the increase in start-ups and overseas businesses coming to Hong Kong, as well as the rise in tourists and international conferences, indicated there was “no truth” to the remark.

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