Baroness Brenda Hale (C) takes Britain's Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall (L), on a tour of Britain's Supreme Court. Photo: AFP / Victoria Jones

A senior British judge has announced she will quit Hong Kong’s top court when her term ends, stating there were “all sorts of question marks” over Beijing’s new national security law, media reported Friday.

Baroness Brenda Hale, the first female president of Britain’s Supreme Court, is one of 13 foreign judges from other common law jurisdictions who sit on Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal.

Unlike mainland China, where the courts are beholden to the Communist Party, Hong Kong’s judicial system remains independent and based on English common law – a major reason for its position as a global business hub.

Lawyers from common law jurisdictions are able to operate in the city, while senior judges are invited to sit on the city’s top court.

Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal. Foreign judges from common law countries may sit on its bench. Photo: HK Govt

But China’s imposition of a sweeping national security law last year has sparked concerns in some legal circles about whether judicial independence can be maintained.

Britain’s government is reviewing whether to bar UK judges from serving on the Court of Final Appeal.

The Times of London said Hale mentioned the impact of the security law as she announced she would not seek a second term on the court when her tenure ends in July.

“The jury is out on how they will be able to operate the new national security law. There are all sorts of question marks up in the air,” the Times quoted Hale as telling an online conference on Thursday.

“I don’t wish to be reappointed.”

The Times said Hale, who headed Britain’s top court from 2017 to 2020, acknowledged there were serious concerns about the national security law, but argued that the remaining foreign judges were “keeping an eye on what’s going on there”.

Once Hale steps down there will be nine British judges on Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal. 

Most are senior judges who have retired including Lord Neuberger and Lord Phillips – two former presidents of Britain’s Supreme Court – and Lord Sumption, a former Supreme Court judge.

The flags of China, Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. The city’s independent courts are an important business asset. Photo: iStock

Lord Reed, the current president of the Supreme Court, also sits on the Hong Kong court. The remainder hail from other common law jurisdictions such as Australia and Canada.

Hong Kong’s government issued a statement Friday that read: “Our judges are committed to judicial independence and upholding the rule of law.”

Hong Kong’s judiciary issued a separate statement saying it was aware Hale did not want her term extended “for personal reasons”. It added that the judiciary remains “free from any interference”.

Critics say the national security law has cracked the legal firewall between Hong Kong and China.

As well as criminalizing many kinds of dissent, the law allows central government security agents to operate openly in the city for the first time, unhindered by local laws.

Its wording also gives Beijing power to prosecute some national security crimes in the mainland court system, and grants China “universal jurisdiction” to pursue security crimes overseas.

AFP