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Hong Kong courts

Two foreign female judges make history with appointments to Hong Kong’s top court

Local legal sector praises news of pioneering women who reached pinnacles of British and Canadian courts

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 March, 2018, 8:04pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 March, 2018, 12:13am

Two pioneering women from Britain and Canada will join Hong Kong’s top court and become the first female non-permanent judges in the city’s judiciary.

Baroness Brenda Hale and Beverley McLachlin already made history in their native jurisdictions as the first female judges to head the top courts in Britain and Canada respectively. While Hale will be joining her former colleague Lord David Neuberger on the bench, it will mark the first time a Canadian chief justice has served.

Their presence will expand the count of foreign judges at the Court of Final Appeal from 12 to 14.

The historic appointment on Wednesday was accompanied by news that Mr Justice Andrew Cheung Kui-nung, chief judge of the High Court, would be promoted as a permanent judge of the Court of Final Appeal.

Hale, 73, is currently president of Britain’s Supreme Court and widely regarded as a liberal judge and champion of equality. Her coat of arms reads: “women are equal to everything”.

Her influence was felt acutely in Hong Kong in two landmark gay-rights cases involving QT and Leung Chun-Kwong. Local judges in those cases cited Hale’s legal reasoning in a British case when they ruled Hong Kong authorities indirectly discriminated against same-sex couples.

Hale had argued it was “difficult to see” how heterosexuals would be encouraged to marry by the knowledge that “some associated benefit is being denied to homosexuals”. 

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McLachlin, 74, was the first female chief justice of any top court in the British Commonwealth. She retired from the position last December.

Seen as a “centrist”, McLachlin has affirmed the indigenous rights of cultural minorities.

Their appointments require Legislative Council approval, but local lawyers and politicians from across the political spectrum welcomed the news.

Legal sector lawmaker Dennis Kwok applauded the appointments for improving gender balance in the Court of Final Appeal, and said it represented a “vote of confidence and strong boost” to the city’s rule of law and judicial independence.

But Kwok would not speculate on whether their presence would create a more liberal approach on the bench, stressing that courts would only issue rulings based on evidence and legal principle.

Hong Kong Law Society vice-president Melissa Kaye Pang praised Hale as an experienced liberal judge who would bring positive change.

While male judges predominate in the local judiciary, most young lawyers and law students were women, Pang said. She added that in the long run their numbers would improve gender balance in the judiciary. 

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Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor expressed excitement over the “historical moment” of two female judges joining the top court.

Further changes are afoot, as Court of Final Appeal judge Mr Justice Robert Tang Kwok-ching is to become a non-permanent judge. Both his and Cheung’s appointments take effect from October.