Two more British judges resign from Hong Kong’s top court

<span>Jonathan Sumption has yet to make a statement on his resignation.</span><span>Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer</span>
Jonathan Sumption has yet to make a statement on his resignation.Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

Two of the last remaining British judges to sit on Hong Kong’s top court have resigned, with one citing the political situation in the former colony.

Lawrence Collins and Jonathan Sumption, former UK supreme court justices, announced their resignations on Thursday. “I have resigned from the court of final appeal because of the political situation in Hong Kong, but I continue to have the fullest confidence in the court and the total independence of its members,” Lord Collins said.

Their departures mean that of the eight remaining overseas judges on Hong Kong’s court of final appeal (CFA), three are from the UK.

Overseas judges on Hong Kong’s top court have been a fixture of the city’s legal system, which unlike mainland China’s is derived from English common law, since the handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997.

The judges serve in a private capacity and are paid about £40,000 a visit, flying into Hong Kong to sit on certain cases. For decades, they were seen as lending prestige and expertise to a jurisdiction admired across Asia.

But in recent years, as the Chinese government has tightened its grip on Hong Kong, there have been calls for the overseas judges to resign.

In 2022, Robert Reed, the president of the UK supreme court, and his colleague Patrick Hodge, resigned from the Hong Kong bench because of concerns about endorsing an administration that appeared to have “departed from values of political freedom, and freedom of expression”.

Lord Sumption had previously told the Guardian that he joined the Hong Kong court to “serve the people of Hong Kong” and that the departure of overseas judges would not be helpful to them. He is yet to make a statement about his resignation on Thursday.

Hong Kong’s chief executive, John Lee, expressed “regret” at the resignations but defended his government’s reshaping of the city’s legal and political climate.

“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,” he said in a statement on Friday.

Lee said the only difference now was that “that national security is now better safeguarded”.

Alyssa Fong, the public affairs advocacy manager for the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation, said the news was “extremely welcome”.

Fong said: “We have long advocated that no foreign judges should continue to give any form of credibility to the Hong Kong courts and authoritarian crackdown” and called for the remaining judges to resign.

Since the pro-democracy protests that rocked the city in 2019 and 2020, the authorities have imposed two national security laws on the territory. The first was imposed by Beijing in 2020, the second, known as article 23, was passed by Hong Kong’s opposition-free parliament in March this year, with the first arrests coming in recent weeks. Legal experts, western governments and activists say the laws are a blow to free expression in the city.

Hundreds of people have been arrested under the 2020 national security law, including the British citizen Jimmy Lai, who is on trial on national security charges. This month, 14 people were found guilty of conspiracy to commit subversion in the biggest national security trial of pro-democracy activists, known as the “Hong Kong 47” (31 of the 47 had already pleaded guilty).

The Hong Kong 47 trial was presided over by a panel of judges handpicked by the chief executive to handle national security cases. The involvement of the Beijing-backed chief executive in choosing judges for national security cases – which can be heard without a jury – raises questions about the robustness of the English common law system, which dictates that the judiciary should be independent from the government.

A spokesperson for the Hong Kong judiciary said: “Chief Justice Andrew Cheung of the Hong Kong court of final appeal notes with regret the resignations of Lord Collins of Mapesbury and Lord Sumption as non-permanent judges of the Hong Kong court of final appeal.”

The spokesperson added that Collins and Sumption “have made valuable contributions to the work of the court for which we in Hong Kong are very grateful”.

“The chief justice has complete confidence that the CFA will continue to fully perform its constitutional role as the final appellate court in Hong Kong. Its operation will not be affected by any change in membership of the court.”

The last remaining British judges on the CFA are Lennie Hoffmann, David Neuberger and Nick Phillips. Lord Neuberger will be part of a panel that hears an appeal from Lai and other pro-democracy activists in a case regarding an unlawful assembly conviction later this month.