Britain pulls its judges from Hong Kong high court so as not to ‘legitimize oppression’

Chinese flags wave outside Hong Kong's Court of Final Appeal.
Chinese national flags wave outside Hong Kong’s highest court, the Court of Final Appeal.
(Vincent Yu / Associated Press)

Britain is withdrawing its judges from Hong Kong’s highest court, saying Wednesday that letting them remain on the panel would “legitimize oppression.”

British judges have sat on the Court of Final Appeal since the former British colony was returned to China in 1997. The two currently on the court submitted their resignations Wednesday.

“The courts in Hong Kong continue to be internationally respected for their commitment to the rule of law,” U.K. Supreme Court President Robert Reed said after his resignation from the Hong Kong court. “Nevertheless, I have concluded, in agreement with the government, that the judges of the Supreme Court cannot continue to sit in Hong Kong without appearing to endorse an administration which has departed from values of political freedom and freedom of expression.”

Fourteen non-permanent judges remain at the Court of Final Appeal, including 10 from other common-law jurisdictions such as Australia and Canada.


A national security law was imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing in 2020, prompting complaints that the communist government was eroding the autonomy that was a condition of the territory’s handover to China in 1997 and ruining its status as a trade and financial center.

Pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong have been imprisoned. They include Jimmy Lai, the 74-year-old former publisher of the Apple Daily newspaper, which shut down under government pressure, and organizers of candlelight memorials of China’s deadly 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

Tong Ying-kit, 24, pleaded not guilty to inciting secession and terrorism during a protest last year in Hong Kong. He could face life in prison.

The British government said it was “no longer tenable for serving U.K. judges” to sit on the Court of Final Appeal because of the increasingly oppressive laws enacted by China. British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said that, “since the National Security Law was imposed, authorities have cracked down on free speech, the free press and free association.“

“The situation has reached a tipping point where it is no longer tenable for British judges to sit on Hong Kong’s leading court, and would risk legitimizing oppression,” Truss said.

She said the decision to pull British judges out after so many years was taken by the British government in consultation with the head of the U.K. Supreme Court.

The decision was welcomed by British lawmakers. A senior Conservative member of Parliament, Tom Tugendhat, said British judges should not help empower “a legal system that is now being used to lock up Hong Kongers without due process.”

Conservative lawmaker Iain Duncan Smith, a longtime critic of the Chinese government, said Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s administration “has done the right thing here, and not a minute too soon.”

He said the presence of British judges was “lending legitimacy to a regime hell-bent on undermining our way of life.”

The Hong Kong Bar Assn., representing the city’s barristers, said the decision was “a matter of deep regret.” It appealed to the Court of Final Appeal’s remaining overseas judges to stay and help uphold the city’s judicial independence.