Foreign judges play a vital role in promoting confidence in Hong Kong
Calls for changes to the judiciary and the Basic Law itself should be resisted
Foreign judges have been an integral part of Hong Kong’s legal system since the early days of colonial rule. Today, they are in the minority, as more local judges have been trained and Cantonese is increasingly used in the courts. But their contribution is valuable. The courts would struggle to operate without them. Those that sit in the Court of Final Appeal are among the most respected judges in the common law world. Their wisdom, intellect and the fresh perspective they bring has been critical to building the top court’s international reputation and developing its jurisprudence.
At lower levels, foreign judges – often lawyers who have been in Hong Kong for many years – bring much-needed expertise to a judiciary battling a potential manpower crisis.These overseas judges are the most visible symbol of Hong Kong’s separate legal system. They help instil confidence in the city as an international financial centre and will have an important role to play if it becomes an arbitration hub for China’s ambitious “One Belt, One Road” trade development strategy.
For all of these reasons, the recent calls for restrictions or bans on foreign judges are misconceived. These proposals from Hong Kong deputies to China’s parliament seem to be motivated by a desire to score political points. They follow criticism of a British judge for passing a two-year prison term on police officers convicted of assaulting an activist during the Occupy pro-democracy demonstrations.
The idea is that the nationality of a judge somehow determines the way in which he or she decides a case. This is not only untrue – it is racist. Local judges have sometimes imposed what critics might regard as lenient sentences on Occupy protesters. Foreign judges have, at times, given rulings which have angered pro-democracy activists. It has nothing to do with race. Judges are trained to shun politics and to decide cases according to legal rules and principles. The fact that foreign judges are provided for in both the Sino-British Joint Declaration and Basic Law underlines their importance.
But some deputies have called for amendments to Hong Kong’s de facto constitution on this and other issues. A former Chinese diplomat even floated fundamental changes, such as requiring Hong Kong to pay taxes to the central government. The “transition period” after the city’s return to China was now over, he said. Hong Kong’s way of life is guaranteed by the Basic Law for at least 50 years. Premier Li Keqiang said in his annual work report Beijing was committed to “one country, two systems”. China can be proud of the unique concept as the 20th anniversary of the handover approaches. Calls for change which would undermine its foundations should be rejected.