The top court ruled yesterday that foreign domestic helpers did not have the right to apply for permanent residency, affirming the government's right to impose immigration controls.
The landmark judgment ended the two-year right-of-abode saga that began when Evangeline Vallejos and Daniel Domingo, two Philippine domestic helpers who had worked in Hong Kong for more than 20 years, sought a judicial review of immigration law.
Mark Daly, solicitor for the two, said Vallejos was "calmly resigned" and that Domingo had called the ruling "unfair".
Eman Villanueva, spokesman for the Asian Migrants' Co-ordinating Body, said: "The ruling gives a judicial feel to the unfair treatment and social exclusion of foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong."
But also in its unanimous decision, the Court of Final Appeal rejected the government's controversial request that it seek an interpretation from Beijing, ruling it "unnecessary".
The request was seen by some as a backhanded attempt by the government to get Beijing to halt the flow of another group of unwanted migrants - children born locally of mainland parents - while putting the city's prized judicial independence at risk.
This means the judgment has thwarted the administration's attempt to solve right-of-abode issues involving domestic helpers and children born locally to mainlanders in one single case.
The government said it would "endeavour" to resolve the remaining right-of-abode issues within the local legal system, but fell short of saying that it would not directly seek an interpretation from Beijing.
Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung told a briefing last night: "We are trying our very best to resolve all legal issues concerning [children born in Hong Kong to mainlanders] by legal avenues which are available within the local legal system.
"We will exhaust our means before we do anything [else]."
Academics and pro-democracy lawmakers said the current ban on mainland women whose husbands were not Hong Kong permanent residents from booking beds in public hospitals had been effective.
They said there was no need for the government to seek an interpretation from Beijing, which they said would damage Hong Kong's autonomy.
The Bar Association and Law Society said directly seeking an interpretation from Beijing would be likely to undermine the rule of law of Hong Kong. Law professor Albert Chen Hung-yee, a Basic Law Committee member, said there was only a slim chance the government would directly seek an interpretation from Beijing given the opposition from the public and the legal and political communities.
"I cannot see that the government has a good basis for it to seek an interpretation," he said, adding the zero-birth-quota measure had been successful. Law professor Michael Davis said: "The government should pursue local options. What they have done so far has had some success. There is really no reason to project beyond that."
Additional reporting by Associated Press