Pro-Beijing lawmakers successfully intervened for the first time at a high-profile judicial hearing in Hong Kong in what lawyers described as the latest attack on the city’s valued independent legal system.
Judge Maria Yuen, the wife of Geoffrey Ma, the city’s former chief judge, is due to be named the next permanent judge at the Hong Kong Court of Appeals, two people familiar with the events told the Financial Times.
But she withdrew her candidacy for the city’s highest court after lawmakers raised concerns about the appointment, people said. Lawmakers argued that Yuen could be influenced by her husband, whom pro-Beijing groups have criticized in the past after defending the neutrality of the Hong Kong judiciary, according to a person who knows her thinking.
Beijing cracked down on Hong Kong’s civil and political institutions in response to anti-government protests in 2019, arresting pro-democracy activists, politicians and media representatives.
China has not yet fundamentally changed Hong Kong’s common law legal system. But such a move would affect international companies, many of which have regional headquarters in the city, partly because of their independent judiciary.
Yuen’s appointment was recommended last year by the Judicial Officers Recommendation Commission, a semi-independent body that honors judicial positions in Hong Kong, and should be approved by Carrie Lam, the city’s executive director, the two people familiar with the events said.
Hong Kong’s de facto parliament, the Legislative Council, must approve the chief executive’s nominees for the highest judicial offices. In the past, this step was viewed as a formality.
But before Yuen’s recommendation was finalized and formally sent to lawmakers for approval, pro-Beijing lawmakers, including Holden Chow and Elizabeth Quat, raised concerns.
The Legislature’s Committee on Justice and Legal Services, dominated by pro-propeking lawmakers, asked the judiciary and government officials to discuss the appointment.
Aside from her objection that Yuen could keep Ma influencing the court, lawmakers also said it took her a long time to pass judgment, according to a person who knows her way of thinking.
The politician’s inquiries resulted in Yuen withdrawing her nomination, according to two people with knowledge of the event, the first known case of its kind. Yuen directed all requests for comment on the incident to the judiciary, which refused to elaborate.
The commission then elected another judge, Johnson Lam, to be appointed.
Geoffrey Ma, former chairman of the Hong Kong Court of Appeal and husband of Maria Yuen © EPA-EFE
Insiders said Lam was not viewed as more conservative or liberal than Yuen in his rulings, nor was there any evidence that lawmakers acted on Beijing orders in Yuen’s case.
But senior lawyers worried that the Yuen case could set a precedent for the pro-propeking-dominated Legislative Council to formally review judicial appointments. This, in turn, could undermine the authority of the JORC, the legal appointments committee.
A senior legal personality said political scrutiny of appointments could result in judges being selected based on their loyalty to Beijing rather than skill and deterring the best candidates from standing.
Johannes Chan, a lawyer at Hong Kong University, said the Yuen affair was “a very bad and worrying development for the independence of the judiciary”.
“It provides a channel for political influence in the appointment of key judicial personnel by a [legislature] which is dominated by pro-Beijing politicians, ”said Chan.
Critics said the government’s decision last year to appoint separate judges for cases involving the national security law, introduced by Beijing after protests in the territory last year, already violated the perception of the independence of the judiciary.
The trial of Tong Ying-kit, the first defendant under the Security Act, is due to begin before these judges on Wednesday.
MPs Chow and Quat declined to comment on the Yuen case. Carrie Lam declined to comment but said: “All appointments of judicial officers by the chairman of the board are made in accordance with the Basic Law,” the mini-constitution of the territory.
Geoffrey Ma declined to comment.
The chairman of the Legislative Committee on the Administration of Justice and Legal Services, Horace Cheung, said he had contacted the government and the judiciary to “seek preliminary views. . . on matters raised by members ”of its committee on the nomination process.
Video: How the National Security Law is changing Hong Kong