HONG KONG – Brenda Hale, a British judge, will leave Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal when her three-year term expires next month, the judiciary said on Friday, raising concerns about the role of foreign judges in the semi-autonomous city.
The departure of Hale, a former president of the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court, comes amid international concern about the impact of a national security law enacted by China’s parliament a year ago on the city.
Diplomats and business leaders say the law’s impact on Hong Kong’s independent judges and separate legal system is being closely monitored due to the city’s importance as a global financial hub.
Hale is one of 13 non-permanent foreign judges on the Supreme Court, a presence that has long been seen as a symbol of the rule of law since Britain returned the former colony to China in 1997.
According to the Hong Kong Judiciary, Hale “has indicated to the Judiciary that for personal reasons she would not wish to have her appointment” extended for another term.
The “immense contribution of overseas judges to Hong Kong has been repeatedly acknowledged,” according to the Judiciary.
Hale, 76, was quoted in London’s The Times newspaper on Friday as saying in an online forum that China’s parliament’s security law, enacted last June, had left “all sorts of question marks up in the air.”
“The jury is still out on how they will be able to operate the national security law,” she said. She stated that the main reason she resigned was due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, which prevented her from easily travelling to Hong Kong.
The security law empowers Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam to appoint judges to a panel of jurists who will handle national security cases.
Suspects can also be taken to mainland China for trial in the most serious cases, and the law gives extensive powers to personnel from Beijing’s security apparatus, who are now stationed in the city for the first time.
Robert Reed, the current president of the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court, is also a member of the Court of Final Appeal and has met with British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to discuss the situation under the new law.
Reed told a House of Lords committee in March that he would not serve or nominate any of his judges if there was “any undermining of the independence of the Hong Kong judiciary.”
Local lawyers keeping an eye on the situation said on Friday that Hale would normally be expected to stay, so her impending departure was a blow to the system.
Last September, Australian judge James Spigelman resigned, citing the law in a statement to Australia’s national broadcaster. Other foreign judges have since been appointed or extended their terms on the court.
Lam appointed Hale and former Canadian Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin as the first women to serve on the Supreme Court in 2018.