Potential judge ban 'won't affect' judicial independence

Top News | Erin Chan 28 May 2020

Banning foreign judges from handling national security cases in Hong Kong could affect the international perception of the city's legal system, says Executive Council member Ronny Tong Ka-wah.

But Tong said he believes such a move will not affect the city's judicial independence.

His comments came after Reuters quoted sources as saying that the soon-to-be-imposed national security law is set to block foreign judges from handling security trials.

Hong Kong's foreign judges stem from an arrangement set up at the 1997 handover to help maintain its status as a global financial center.

The city's highest court, the Court of Final Appeal, has 23 judges, of whom 15 are foreign and hail from countries including Britain, Canada and Australia.

All serve as non-permanent judges and are called on periodically to sit on cases.

The report also said that Macau barred foreign judges from hearing national security cases in 2018.

Whether a judge is biased or not has nothing to do with his or her nationality or descent, Tong said.

He noted that even a local judge was recently perceived to be biased - in reference to District Court judge Kwok Wai-kin, who caused an uproar when he described the perpetrator of a knife attack at a pro-democracy Lennon Wall in Tseung Kwan O in August as "noble" in his judgement in April.

But senior counsel and National People's Congress deputy Maggie Chan Man-ki, who earlier proposed setting up a special national security court where cases would only be heard by Chinese judges, dismissed worries over the ban.

She said foreign judges or judges with dual nationalities must be excluded from national security cases because of conflict of interest concerns.

"This is a matter of profession and the value of the rule of law, and is not only limited to the concern of nationality."

Hong Kong Bar Association vice chairwoman Anita Ip Hau-ki worried that such a ban might damage the image of Hong Kong's judicial independence.

"Judicial independence, as we all know, is one of the cornerstones for the success of Hong Kong," she said.

"So I think that if this happens, it will have a rather significant adverse impact on Hong Kong."

Ip said she does not understand the ban, as a judge of any nationality will adjudicate on cases in accordance with the laws of Hong Kong.

She said the ban may also reflect Beijing's disrespect for one country, two systems alongside the difference between Beijing and Hong Kong in the understanding of "the rule of law."

Civic Party lawmaker Dennis Kwok Wing-hang slammed any ban as "bizarre."

"Each court has foreign judges handling different kinds of cases, and there is no differentiation of judges by nationality," he said.

Kwok noted that some judges branded as "foreign" are permanent residents of Hong Kong, except non-permanent judges on the Court of Final Appeal.

erin.chan@singtaonewscorp.com

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