Type to search

Exodus of Foreign Judges in Hong Kong Upsets City CEO

High-profile UK judge Lord Jonathan Sumption said on Monday that judges are being compromised by an “impossible political environment created by China.”

Lord Jonathan Sumption (GovHK image).


Three more senior foreign judges have stepped down from Hong Kong’s top court, the Court of Final Appeal, amid concerns over judicial independence from China.

One of the three, high-profile British judge Lord Jonathan Sumption, 75, who resigned Thursday, said on Monday that judges are being compromised by an “impossible political environment created by China.”

“Hong Kong, once a vibrant and politically diverse community is slowly becoming a totalitarian state. The rule of law is profoundly compromised in any area about which the government feels strongly,” he wrote in an opinion piece for the Financial Times.


ALSO SEE: Price Wars by Chinese Retailers Amplify Weak Consumer Outlook


Lord Sumption noted that “if China does not like the courts’ decisions it can have them reversed by an ‘interpretation’ from the standing committee of the National People’s Congress in Beijing,” adding that judges have to deal with “the paranoia of the authorities.”

Beijing imposed a highly controversial national security law in Hong Kong in 2020 after riots the previous year.

The UK judge said: “The violent riots of 2019 were shocking but the ordinary laws of Hong Kong were perfectly adequate for dealing with them.”

However, the closure of pro-democracy media outlets by police, with their editors put on trial for sedition and the disbanding of campaign groups and arrest of their leaders had created “an oppressive atmosphere” that intimidated local judges.

The two other judges who stepped down were Lawrence Collins, another British Supreme Court judge, who also blamed “the political situation in Hong Kong”, and Beverley McLachlin, a former Chief Justice of Canada’s Supreme Court, who said on Monday she wished to spend more time with family, the BBC reported.

Their departure means six senior foreign judges have resigned since China imposed its security law in the former British colony four years ago, it said.

Hong Kong CEO hits back

Sumption’s remarks, which appear slightly stronger than those of others who have stepped down in recent years, drew a long response from Hong Kong chief executive John Lee, who said judges were professional – but “their expertise does not lie in politics”.

“A judge may dislike a political system [or] a particular piece of legislation, but where the expertise of a judge is concerned, that judge should follow the evidence and the law in interpreting the law correctly, irrespective of their personal politics,” Lee said.

Sumption’s commentary included criticism of a ruling in the “Hong Kong 47” trial last month on individuals from the pro-democracy movement.

A panel of handpicked judges convicted 14 of 16 people who had pleaded not guilty on national security charges related to the holding of pre-election primaries in 2020, according to The Guardian. They had hoped to win most of the seats in Hong Kong’s parliament so they could block the budget and force the chief executive to stand down.

Sumption said the decision was “legally indefensible”, because Hong Kong’s constitution “expressly authorises” legislators to reject government budgets.

He had stayed on the court in the hope that the presence of overseas judges might help sustain the rule of law, he said, but now felt “this is no longer realistic.”

The latest resignations come after the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation, an NGO, released a report last month that claimed “foreign judges are lending legitimacy to Beijing’s crackdown on political freedoms in Hong Kong” – and called for them to resign.


  • Jim Pollard



More US Law Firms Ditch Shanghai as Business Slumps – FT

China Sees Growing Unrest Over Cases of Financial Distress

Hong Kong Security Law Has Global Firms Racing to Shield Secrets

Restructuring Firms Busy in Hong Kong Amid China Property Crisis

India Leaps Hong Kong in World’s Top Stock Market List – CNBC

Hong Kong’s Economic Kickstart Plan Includes Security Focus

Hong Kong Battles to Boost Appeal, Business After Clampdown

Jim Pollard

Jim Pollard is an Australian journalist based in Thailand since 1999. He worked for News Ltd papers in Sydney, Perth, London and Melbourne before travelling through SE Asia in the late 90s. He was a senior editor at The Nation for 17+ years.


AF China Bond