Hong Kong authorities refute claims by a resigning British judge that the rule of law is under threat

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

The city government issued a 2,900-word statement on Tuesday morning in response to a Financial Times opinion piece by an outgoing Court of Appeal judge titled “The rule of law in Hong Kong is in grave danger.”

The government also confirmed that 80-year-old Beverley McLachlin will step down from the Court of Appeal at the end of her term this summer, with the Canadian becoming the third non-permanent judge to announce her departure in a week.

In response to Sumption’s opinion, the authorities responded sharply to claims that local courts were under pressure.

“There is absolutely no truth that the (Hong Kong) courts are under any political pressure from the central government or the (Hong Kong government) in adjudicating national security matters or any matters of any kind at all; or that there is a decline in the rule of law in Hong Kong,” a government spokesman said.

“Anyone who suggests otherwise, regardless of reasons or motives, would be completely wrong, completely baseless and should rightly be refuted.”

Hong Kong, China’s only common law jurisdiction, can recruit judges from other countries under its mini-constitution. Tradition is seen as an indicator of trust in the city’s rule of law.

In his article, Sumption wrote that judges in the city had to “operate in an impossible political environment created by China” and that the rule of law was “seriously threatened in all areas about which the government has strong opinions.”

However, the government statement cited Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu’s promise that authorities have never and will not allow any interference in prosecutions or judicial processes.

The city leader said the authorities had always respected and protected their independent prosecutorial and judicial powers.

“It was so in the past, it is so now and it will be so in the future. The rule of law in Hong Kong is strong and will not change,” Lee said.

Sumption also wrote that he continued to serve on the court for a time because he hoped that the presence of foreign judges would help maintain the rule of law.

“I’m afraid it’s not realistic anymore. Others are less pessimistic. I hope they prove they are right,” he said.

Justice Jonathan Sumption previously announced he was leaving the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal. Photo: Leaflet
The outgoing judge also described the sentencing of 14 opposition activists in the largest and longest-established opposition in the city national security process as “a symptom of growing malaise in the Hong Kong judiciary.”

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

The government sharply criticized this claim, arguing that the increase in the number of start-ups and foreign enterprises coming to Hong Kong, as well as the increase in the number of tourists and the number of international conferences, show that there is “no truth” in the remark.