The president of Britain’s Supreme Court said Wednesday that he and a colleague were stepping down from their roles on Hong Kong’s highest court because the administration of the Chinese territory had “departed from values of political freedom and freedom of expression.”
Their resignations will heighten scrutiny of Hong Kong’s British-style legal system, which the former British colony kept even after it returned to Chinese control in 1997. While the system has long had a reputation of independence, Beijing’s imposition of a strict national security law on Hong Kong in 2020 has put it under increasing pressure to uphold the government’s crackdown on dissent.
Judges from countries including Britain, Australia and New Zealand have served as nonpermanent judges on Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal alongside the city’s chief justice and other local judges. The arrangement was devised to maintain the legal system’s contact with the greater common law world even after control of the territory returned to Beijing.
The resignations of the president of Britain’s Supreme Court, of Robert Reed, and Patrick Hodge, the deputy president, will add to questions about the autonomy of Hong Kong’s judiciary.
Lord Reed said in a written statement that judges of Britain’s Supreme Court could not continue sitting 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.”
The national security law had made the question of whether such participation was in Britain’s national interest “increasingly finely balanced,” he said, adding that Hong Kong’s courts “continue to be internationally respected for their commitment to the rule of law.”
The resignations were backed by the British government, with Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, and Dominic Raab, the deputy prime minister, saying they endorsed the move.
“The situation has reached a tipping point where it is no longer tenable for British judges to sit on Hong Kong’s leading court, and would risk legitimizing oppression,” Ms. Truss said in a statement.
Hong Kong officials have staunchly defended the local legal system. Andrew Cheung, the Hong Kong chief justice, dismissed criticism of the courts in a speech in January and denied that the security law had affected the impartiality of judges.
“Judicial independence in Hong Kong exists as a fact,” he said.
The role of the British Supreme Court judges on Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal is unique because they are acting judges at home. Other foreign judges on the Hong Kong court, including current members from Britain, Australia and Canada, are retired.
But the resignation of the high-profile British judges could pressure others to follow, legal experts said.
“This will influence a lot of public opinion, even though it may not actually be true in terms of the state of justice in Hong Kong,” said Simon Young, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong.
“This ongoing perception and reality — you see this great divide,” he added. “And then, of course, it puts the other foreign judges in a difficult position because they will be asked, ‘If this is true, why are you staying?’”
James Spigelman, a judge from Australia, stepped down from Hong Kong’s top court in 2020, citing the security law.
More than 150 people have been arrested under the national security law since it was imposed in 2020. They include Jimmy Lai, the founder of a now-shuttered pro-democracy newspaper, and 47 of the city’s most prominent opposition politicians and activists, who were accused of trying to subvert the government by vowing to block its agenda in the legislature.
The law introduced some significant changes to Hong Kong’s system, including allowing the government to designate which judges would hear cases under the law, and strictly limiting bail. Most of the politicians and activists charged under the law remain in jail awaiting trial more than a year later.