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Criticism over judges’ nationality unhelpful and disappointing, expatriate judge in Hong Kong says

Mr Justice Jonathan Harris believes such attacks could discourage law practitioners from joining city’s judiciary

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 May, 2017, 8:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 May, 2017, 7:19pm

A serving expatriate judge has hit back at recent criticism against non-Chinese members of Hong Kong’s judiciary, warning that such “unhelpful and disappointing” attacks could discourage future generations from joining the bench.

Mr Justice Jonathan Harris, who moved from London to Hong Kong some 34 years ago, warned that there might not be any foreign judges left at the High Court in as little as five years, as their numbers were already dwindling.

His remarks came in an interview with Hong Kong Lawyer, the Law Society’s official monthly journal.

Hong Kong’s rule of law depends on people’s values, not foreign judges

The Court of First Instance judge, who specialises in commercial cases, also spoke at length about the city’s lack of clear provisions for assistance to corporations seeking restructuring. Hong Kong could lose out to jurisdictions it was lagging behind, such as the US and UK, he said.

He added that it came at a time when it was commonplace for mainland companies to list in Hong Kong, and that would inevitably lead to financial issues. With mainland officials looking overseas for inspiration to improve China’s bankruptcy, he said, “it would make sense” for Hong Kong to contemplate its role.

The role of foreign judges became the subject of debate in February after District Court judge David Dufton jailed seven local policemen for assaulting a protester during the Occupy demonstrations in 2014. Some police sympathisers suggested foreign judges were predisposed to favour the pan-democratic camp.During the annual session in March, some Hong Kong deputies to the National People’s Congress called for foreign judges to be banned from handling constitutional cases. One of them, Peter Wong Man-kong, suggested judges’ foreign nationality meant allegiance to other sovereigns.

Mr Justice Harris, 60, said this was “unhelpful and disappointing” to judges like him, who “think of Hong Kong as our home”.

“I am the youngest and when I retire there may be no more of us,” he was quoted as saying. “It is surprising anybody thinks our presence is an issue.”

The normal retirement age for Hong Kong judges is 65 years.

“My concern is not so much about the impact these comments have on current judges, but how they are interpreted by members of the profession who may be thinking of joining the High Court judiciary,” he continued. “Criticism of any judge risks being interpreted as an attack on the type of judiciary Hong Kong currently has: independent and apolitical.

Beijing throws the book at Hong Kong’s foreign judges

“My impression is that there is a very strong desire on the part of practitioners to maintain the current type of judiciary and if they are concerned it is under attack they may be reluctant to join it.”

According to the Basic Law, only the chief justice of the Court of Final Appeal and the chief judge of the High Court are required to be Chinese citizens and permanent residents of Hong Kong with no right of abode in any foreign country.