The renewal of contracts for three overseas judges on the Court of Final Appeal last month attracted little attention in Hong Kong but has sparked a lively debate in Britain. Lord Neuberger and Lord Walker, from the UK, were given new three-year terms to serve part-time on the city’s top court, along with Mr Justice Murray Gleeson from Australia. The extensions come as Britain considers withdrawing its judges. A decision appears to be imminent, amid clashes between London and Beijing over the national security law, mass arrests of opposition figures, and electoral reforms. Last week The Times ran an editorial calling on Britain’s 10 non-permanent Hong Kong judges to resign and to insist they will “no longer lend their authority to a compromised system, and demand that independent justice be restored to Hong Kong”. It argued the presence of these renowned judges gives the city’s legal system a veneer of legitimacy it no longer deserves. One of the judges, Lord Sumption, hit back with an opinion piece in the same newspaper highlighting the commitment of Hong Kong’s judiciary to judicial independence and declaring he will stay. British officials and judges should be aware of the devastating impact the withdrawal of their judges would have on Hong Kong. The judges serving on the top court are among the best in the world. Their experience and expertise has contributed greatly to the quality of the Court of Final Appeal’s rulings. Britain might reflect on some of the key decisions made by their judges that have upheld rights in the city. They include the leading judgment of Lord Nicholls in a libel case in 2000 that favoured freedom of expression, Lord Walker’s landmark ruling against the government in 2018 furthering LGBT rights and Lord Hoffman’s quashing of democrat Joshua Wong Chi-fung’s jail term for unlawful assembly the same year. Britain should also consider the care Hong Kong’s judiciary is taking with the multitude of cases arising from anti-government protests in 2019. Many have ended in acquittals because there was insufficient or unreliable evidence. The national security law has the potential to seriously curb rights but also asserts that freedoms are to be protected. The job of upholding rights in security cases will lie mostly – if not entirely – with the city’s judiciary. The law allows for some cases to be tried on the mainland but it is to be hoped this will be rare, if it happens at all. The overseas judges have a valuable role to play in standing with Hong Kong’s judiciary and ensuring the law is applied freely, fairly and independently. If they disagree with local judges, they can deliver a dissenting judgment. Independent justice still exists in Hong Kong. As Lord Sumption said, the city has judges who are experienced, courageous and independent-minded. But the judiciary also faces unprecedented challenges, including calls from pro-establishment politicians for it to be reformed. Beijing presumably wants the judges to stay. Their presence boosts confidence in the system and is valuable to Hong Kong’s status as an international financial centre. The central and Hong Kong governments must demonstrate their commitment to the city’s judicial independence. Officials should publicly defend the judges whenever they come under attack. They should not pass laws that tie the hands of the courts or exclude judicial review. Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor can help by publicly approving foreign judges for security cases. Any judicial reforms must be handled by the judiciary. The controversy over foreign judges has not been confined to Britain. One Australian judge on the top court resigned, reportedly because of the national security law. Canadian judge Beverley McLachlin has come under pressure in her country to do the same. Hong Kong needs the overseas judges to stay to uphold rights and defend the rule of law. Their withdrawal would play into the hands of those who would like to see the courts become compliant servants of the government rather than independent guardians of the law.