July 17, 2020 / 12:30 PM / 19 days ago

UK top court says it is assessing UK judges' position in Hong Kong appeal court

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s Supreme Court said it would continue to assess the position of serving UK judges on Hong Kong’s top court in discussion with the UK government, while raising ‘concerns’ about parts of new security laws imposed on the city by China.

FILE PHOTO: Chief Justice of the Court of Final Appeal, Geoffrey Ma Tao-li delivers a speech during the ceremonial opening of the legal year at City Hall in Hong Kong, China January 13, 2020. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar

Under a 1997 agreement, Britain has provided two serving law lords to sit on the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal.

The presence of senior foreign judges from common law jurisdictions such as the UK to serve on the city’s highest court is a tradition that has helped burnish Hong Kong’s reputation as a strong and independent legal hub.

The recent imposition of harsh national security laws on the financial hub by China’s Communist Party leaders, however, has raised grave concerns about the city’s legal independence, autonomy and freedoms.

“Whether judges of the Supreme Court can continue to serve as judges in Hong Kong will depend on whether such service remains compatible with judicial independence and the rule of law,” said the president of the UK Supreme Court Robert Reed.

“The new security law contains a number of provisions which give rise to concerns. Its effect will depend upon how it is applied in practice,” Reed added in a statement on the “role of UK judges on the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal.”

Reed didn’t specify which provisions. Under the national security laws, China can exercise jurisdiction on some serious cases, and Hong Kong’s leader has the right to designate judges to hear national security cases.

Even before the national security laws were enacted on June 30 by China’s parliament without any Hong Kong legislative process or consultation, senior judges had told Reuters the independence of Hong Kong’s judicial system is under assault from the Communist Party leadership in Beijing.

Hong Kong, a former British colony, reverted to Chinese rule in 1997 with the guarantee it would enjoy a high degree of autonomy and freedoms.

Hong Kong’s number two official, chief secretary, Matthew Cheung, played down Lord Reed’s comments, saying Hong Kong’s judicial independence is “something which we’ll preserve and we value greatly.”

“I don’t think there should be any grounds for concern on the appointment of judges and I don’t think there will be any change in the judicial system in a long, long time to come.”

Reporting by Sarah Young and Hong Kong bureau, Editing by William Maclean

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