Published: 02:00, June 18, 2024
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Pompous UK judge belittles Hong Kong judiciary
By Mark Pinkstone

The resignations of two British judges from the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal (HKCFA) appear to have resulted from pressure from the United Kingdom government. Over the past two years, four British judges have withdrawn their services in Hong Kong after UK Supreme Court President Robert Reed declared: “I have concluded, in agreement with the government, that the judges of the Supreme Court cannot continue to sit in Hong Kong.”

Two of the latest resignations came from Lord Jonathan Sumption and Lord Lawrence Collins. Collins, appointed to the court in 2011, said he resigned because of the “political situation” in Hong Kong. But he added: “I continue to have the fullest confidence in the court and total independence of its members.” So the independence of the judiciary was not in dispute, but the “political situation” was.

Sumption came out more robustly with an article published in the Financial Times, criticizing the National Security Law for Hong Kong (NSL) as being “imposed in response to the threat of a pro-democratic majority” in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. The fact is, the law was introduced in June 2020 in response to the months of riots in Hong Kong that had started in June 2019.

Like many before him, Sumption comes across as an armchair critic, forming opinions gleaned solely from biased information. This is most unbecoming of a judge who would normally draw conclusions based on evidence, not sentiments.

It would, therefore, be interesting to see how he would assess the UK government’s arrest of three people, one of whom is linked to the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in London, for burglarizing the home of a Hong Kong woman wanted for theft from her former employers in Hong Kong. The three were charged on suspicion of spying activities under the UK’s national security laws; the woman was not an activist, nor had she any political leanings.

Sumption also said in his article that “Hong Kong’s judges have been threatened with sanctions, an idea that is crude, counterproductive, and unjust. Most of them are honorable people with all the liberal instincts of common law.”

He told the BBC that a Hong Kong court’s verdicts on 14 individuals charged with “conspiracy to subvert State power” was “the last straw”.

Then came his most substantial evidence of political bias: “The judgment … was a major indication of the lengths to which some judges are prepared to go to ensure that Beijing’s campaign against those who have supported democracy succeeds.”

There it is: Sumption is accusing some members of Hong Kong’s judiciary of ignoring judicial independence in favor of the Chinese central government in Beijing. How pompous can one be to belittle fellow judges in a case he has nothing to do with.

Sumption is perfectly entitled to his views if they are accurate. But that does not always seem to be the case. In July 2021, Full Fact, a group of independent fact-checkers, fact-checked information broadcast by BBC and found that Sumption had “made several mistakes with COVID-19 data when talking about the disease” on BBC Radio 4’s Today program.

He told the same program recently that he had eventually reached the point “where I don’t think that my continuing presence on the court (the HKCFA) is serving any useful purpose”.

However, the anti-Hong Kong line taken by Sumption follows the line of the UK government. In 2022, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, then headed by Liz Truss, stated that the foreign secretary, Truss, supported the withdrawal of serving UK judges from the HKCFA. “Following discussions with the deputy prime minister and lord chancellor and the president of the Supreme Court, it was agreed that it is no longer tenable for serving UK judges to sit on Hong Kong’s top court,” the UK government said in a statement.

Since the implementation of the NSL, the UK government and politicians have been attempting to pressure British judges to quit Hong Kong’s top court, with Truss wholeheartedly supporting the decision to withdraw British judges. And the then-multihatted deputy prime minister, justice secretary, and lord chancellor, Dominic Raab, regretfully agreed that it was “no longer appropriate” for serving British judges to continue sitting in Hong Kong courts.

The pressure for the judges to withdraw from Hong Kong comes not only from the UK government but also from the House of Lords, where some members hold strong views about the future of Hong Kong.

The UK Law Society Gazette reported on June 10 that former UK Supreme Court president Lord David Neuberger of Abbotsbury has refused to bow to pressure to step down as one of three remaining retired British judges sitting on the Hong Kong top court. Neuberger told a Bar Council conference in London on June 8 that as long as he could do good by being in Hong Kong and so long as he thought he may cause harm by leaving, “I want to stay and support my judicial colleagues in Hong Kong and support the rule of law as long as I can”.

The author is a former chief information officer of the Hong Kong Government, a PR and media consultant, and a veteran journalist.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.