Two retired UK judges resign from Hong Kong’s top court

Decision of Lords Collins and Sumption comes amid mounting concern over rule of law

Court of Final Appeal, Hong Kong Shutterstock

Two retired UK Supreme Court judges have resigned from their positions as non-permanent judges of the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal (CFA).

The departure of Lord Collins of Mapesbury and Lord Sumption from the court comes amid mounting concerns over the impact of national security laws on the rule of law in Hong Kong.

Collins, who joined the court in 2011, told legal commentator Joshua Rozenberg he had resigned “because of the political situation in Hong Kong” although he added that he continued “to have the fullest confidence in the court and its members’ total independence”.

Sumption, who was appointed to the court in 2019, told GLP he would give a full statement next week on the reasons for his decision.

The resignations come in the wake of the introduction of the Hong Kong Safeguarding National Security Law (SNS Law) in March, which further restricted civil liberties following the imposition of the National Security Law (NSL) in June 2020, which heralded the suppression of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement by the authorities. 

Last month, an array of Western governments, including the UK, condemned the conviction of 14 pro-democracy activists in the largest use yet of the NSL.

Responding to the resignations, Chief Justice Andrew Cheung praised the “valuable contributions” of Collins and Sumption to the court’s work.

Cheung said the judiciary remained committed to the rule of law and judicial independence and would administer justice “without fear or favour, self-interest or deceit”.

He added: “There are currently four local NPJs and eight NPJs from other common law jurisdictions in the CFA. Two overseas NPJs were appointed last year and in May this year. Suitable candidates from overseas common law jurisdictions will continue to be appointed to the court as NPJs.”

The departure of Collins and Sumption from the bench leaves three retired UK judges still in post: Lord Hoffmann, Lord Neuberger and Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers.

The custom for two sitting UK Supreme Court judges to be represented on the court ended in March 2022 when Lords Reed and Hodge resigned, Reed having concluded that “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, to which the Justices of the Supreme Court are deeply committed”.

In March, the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) expressed “profound concern” about the SNS Law which it said “went much further than the NSL, curtailing more of the rights and freedoms enjoyed in the city under the cover of safeguarding national security”.

It said a provision that certain lawyers or law firms could be banned from representing clients suspected of having committed national security offences “will likely have a chilling effect on the legal profession in Hong Kong: lawyers will be discouraged from representing clients in national security cases, fearing potential targeting or damage to their reputation”.

Last month, the challenges posed to international firms operating in Hong Kong were underlined by Mayer Brown’s decison to split with the bulk of its Hong Kong arm in a move that will resurrect the historic Johnson Stokes & Master brand.

However, several international law firms have quit Hong Kong since the imposition of the NSL, it remains an important regional legal hub.

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