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Long Hair Leung Kwok-hung outside the Court of Final Appeal in October. Photo: Dickson Lee

Hong Kong opposition activist wins long hair fight with city’s prison bosses

  • Court of Final Appeal backs Leung Kwok-hung in his battle with Correctional Services Department over haircut six years ago
  • Leung, who had his signature locks cut when he was jailed in 2014, argued the policy was discriminatory

Hong Kong’s top court has ruled that a prison requirement for male inmates to keep their hair short constitutes sex discrimination, ending a six-year legal battle by an ousted opposition lawmaker who was forced to crop his shoulder-length locks while behind bars in 2014.

Five justices of the Court of Final Appeal on Friday sided unanimously with Leung Kwok-hung, nicknamed “Long Hair” for his trademark look, against the Correctional Services Department (CSD).

Leung was beaming as he emerged from the courthouse in Central to celebrate his David-versus-Goliath victory over prison bosses whom he took to court in 2014 after they refused his request to be spared a haircut, just as female inmates were.

“The discrimination was so obvious,” he said, tossing and fussing with his flowing hair for the benefit of the cameras.

The court gave both Leung and the CSD just over a month to submit their responses on how to frame the policy change now mandated by the ruling.

A spokesman said the CSD would study the judgment with the Department of Justice before deciding on follow-up action.

Leung Kwok-hung acknowledges his supporters as he leaves Lai Chi Kok Detention Centre in July 2014. Photo: K.Y. Cheng

Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li, who took the leading role to write the judgment endorsed by his four colleagues, rejected the CSD’s assertion that hair length was tied closely to custodial discipline.


“It is not readily apparent, and no explanation was provided by the [commissioner of correctional services], as to why this had any reasonable connection with custodial discipline,” he wrote.

Ma noted that the CSD, which argued it was only imposing a social norm, had failed to explain the basis of its claim that men always had shorter hair, an assumption he added gave rise to stereotyping.

While the CSD argued that there was a need to give less prominence to individuality, Ma said: “It is difficult to accept, without a proper explanation, why individual choices should be denied to male prisoners but not female ones, and what this selective denial of choices has to do with a de-emphasis on individuality anyway.”

Top court judges question short hair ‘convention’ for male prisoners

Leung was jailed for four weeks for criminal damage and disorderly behaviour in June 2014, stemming from an incident at a public forum in Tsim Sha Tsui on September 1, 2011.

He launched a judicial challenge after prison officers at Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre forced Leung to get rid of his signature locks, shrugging off his threat of court action.


Leung had argued that the haircut violated the Sex Discrimination Ordinance, because female inmates were allowed to keep their hair long. The CSD’s rules violated the Hong Kong Bill of Rights, he claimed.

Joshua Wong held in solitary confinement, lights on 24 hours a day

But the department in charge of the city’s 22 detention facilities housing more than 5,000 prisoners said it was a hygiene-related requirement, and the rule for male prisoners to keep their hair short merely reflected social norms.


The Court of First Instance initially ruled in Leung’s favour in 2017, but that was overturned by the Court of Appeal the following year.

Leung was doggedly persistent, taking his grievance all the way to the city’s highest court.

The CSD had said in its defence that it had conducted semi-annual reviews on its in-house rules over the past several decades, concluding each and every time that it remained the social norm for men to keep their hair short.


During the hearing itself, one of the top justices, Roberto Ribeiro, challenged the modern application of the short-hair convention by offering a pop-culture analogy.

“In the days of The Beatles, people had longer hair. They didn’t change [policy] because [long hair] was the convention,” he said in October. “I find it very hard to see how you can have a standard that doesn’t change.”

Leung lost his Legislative Council seat in 2017 over improper oath taking.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: ‘Long Hair’ wins six-year battle with prison services over haircut in jail