Pro-Beijing lawmakers successfully intervened for the first time in a high-profile judicial appointment in Hong Kong, in what lawyers have called the latest attack on the city’s beloved independent legal system.
Judge Maria Yuen, wife of Geoffrey Ma, the city’s former chief justice, was due to be appointed next permanent judge at the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal, 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 nomination, residents said. Lawmakers have argued that Yuen could be influenced by her husband, whom pro-Beijing elements have criticized in the past after defending the neutrality of the Hong Kong justice system, according to a person familiar with their thinking.
The movement came as 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 figures.
China has yet to make significant changes to Hong Kong’s common law legal system. But such a move would be concern international companies, many of which established regional headquarters in the city in part because of its independent judiciary.
Yuen’s appointment was recommended last year by the Judicial Officers’ Recommendation Commission, a semi-independent body that reviews judicial positions in Hong Kong, and is expected to be approved by Carrie Lam, the city’s chief executive, have said the two people familiar with the events.
Hong Kong’s de facto parliament, the Legislative Council, is required to confirm the chief executive’s candidates for senior judicial positions. In the past, this step was considered a formality.
But before Yuen’s recommendation was finalized and officially sent to the legislature for confirmation, pro-Beijing lawmakers, including Holden Chow and Elizabeth Quat, raised concerns.
The legislature’s panel on the administration of justice and legal services, which is dominated by pro-Beijing lawmakers, has called on the judiciary and government officials to discuss the appointment.
Besides their objection that Ma might continue to influence the court through Yuen, lawmakers also said she took a long time to render judgments, according to a person with knowledge of their thinking.
The politician’s investigations led Yuen to withdraw his appointment, according to two people familiar with the events, the first known case of its kind. Yuen directed all requests for comment on the incident to the courts, which declined to give details.
The commission then selected another judge, Johnson Lam, who should be appointed.
Insiders said Lam was not seen as more conservative or liberal in his judgments than Yuen, and that there was no evidence that lawmakers acted on Beijing’s orders in Yuen’s case.
But senior legal officials feared the Yuen case would set a precedent for the Legislative Council, dominated by pro-Beijing politicians, to formally review judicial appointments. This in turn could undermine the authority of the JORC, the judicial nominating committee.
A senior legal official said the political review of nominations could lead to judges being chosen based on their loyalty to Beijing rather than their ability, and could deter the best candidates to come forward.
Johannes Chan, a lawyer at the University of Hong Kong, said the Yuen case was “a very bad and worrying development for judicial independence”.
“This provides a channel for political interference in the appointment of key judicial personnel by a [legislature] which is dominated by pro-Beijing politicians, ”Chan said.
Critics said the government’s decision last year to appoint separate judges for cases involving the National Security Law, which was brought into the territory by Beijing last year following the protests, had already hurt perceptions of judicial independence.
Tong Ying-kit’s trial, the first person charged under the security law, is due to begin Wednesday before these judges.
Lawmakers Chow and Quat declined to comment on the Yuen case. Carrie Lam refused to comment but declared: “all the appointments of judicial officers by the chief executive are made in accordance with the Basic Law”, the mini-constitution of the territory.
Geoffrey Ma declined to comment.
The chairman of the legislature’s panel on administration of justice and legal services, Horace Cheung, said he had contacted the government and the judiciary to “obtain preliminary opinions.” . . on issues raised by members ”of its panel on the nomination process.