Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Wednesday expressed regret and disappointment at the resignations of two British judges, Robert Reed and Patrick Hodge, from the Court of Final Appeal (CFA).
Referring to a 1997 agreement between then Chief Justice Andrew Li and then Lord Chancellor of the UK that two serving Law Lords are to sit on Hong Kong's highest court, Lam said: "We have no choice but acquiesced in the two eminent judges' decision to resign from the CFA following the UK Government's decision to discontinue an agreement that has been respected and has served both the Hong Kong and UK interests well for years, but we must vehemently refute any unfounded allegations that the judges' resignations have anything to do with the introduction of the Hong Kong National Security Law (NSL) or the exercise of freedom of speech and political freedom in Hong Kong."
The government, meanwhile, expressed its vehement opposition to "the parliament of the United Kingdom for making up unfounded allegations against the national security law and the legal system in Hong Kong", as it responded to two British judges quitting the SAR's top court.
A spokesman said in a statement that a debate in the British parliament might have influenced the resignation of Lord Reed and Lord Hodge.
"This is clear evidence of external political pressure on judges of an otherwise independent judiciary. This will not be tolerated and will not happen in Hong Kong with the guarantee under Article 85 of the Basic Law which provides that the courts of the HKSAR shall exercise judicial power independently, free from any interference," the statement said.
The spokesman said the judges' departure will not in any way affect the city's judicial independence.
Chief Justice Andrew Cheung, meanwhile, expressed regret over the resignations.
In a statement, the top judge said the departure of Lord Reed and Lord Hodge would not affect the judiciary's commitment to upholding the rule of law and judicial independence.
"All judges and judicial officers will continue to abide by the Judicial Oath and administer justice in full accordance with the law, without fear or favour, self-interest or deceit," he said.
The chairman of the Bar Association, Victor Dawes, and the president of the Law Society, Chan Chak-ming, also expressed regret over the judges' move.
Dawes told RTHK that he does not believe there's any justified concern about the rule of law and the independence of the Hong Kong judiciary.
He called on all the remaining foreign judges at the top court to continue serving the people of Hong Kong, noting that the head of the UK top judicial body also praised the SAR's courts.
"We recognise that it is said in Lord Reed's statement that the Hong Kong courts continue to be internationally respected for their commitment to the rule of law, and the Bar agrees with that."
Chan appealed to the two British judges to reverse course and for all overseas judges to continue to sit in the Court of Final Appeal to serve the cause of justice.
“Unfair and unfounded accusations, especially those based on prejudice and political motives, against the judicial system of Hong Kong have no place in the discussion about the rule of law and judicial independence,” he said in a statement.
“The mechanism of the participation of overseas non-permanent judges from other common law jurisdictions in Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal helps to enforce and preserve basic rights and freedom under the Basic Law. Any interference with the participation of the overseas non-permanent judges in the Court of Final Appeal is a far cry from supporting the rule of law and judicial independence."
Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng, meanwhile, insisted Hong Kong's judicial independence is still intact.
She was commenting in her official blog on the appointment of national security judges.
"The constitutional bedrock upon which our judicial independence is premised will not be shaken," she wrote.
"With a strong, robust and professional legal fraternity, our judicial system will continue to remain intact and robust. Whatever happens, it lies in all of us here in Hong Kong to ensure that the bedrock is preserved and judicial independence is honoured."
The Foreign Ministry's office in Hong Kong also weighed in, saying it "strongly deplored" Britain's decision to pull the two senior judges from the top court.
"By playing the 'foreign judges' card, it (Britain) attempts to maliciously vilify China's policies for Hong Kong and to discredit the development of Hong Kong's rule of law," the Commissioner's Office said in a statement. (Additional reporting by AFP)
Last updated: 2022-03-30 HKT 23:11