Pro-Beijing lawmakers successfully intervened for the first time at an early judicial appointment in Hong Kong, in what lawyers said was the latest attack on the city’s precious independent legal system.
Justice Maria Yuen, the wife of Geoffrey Ma, former chief justice of the city, was to be appointed as the next permanent judge of the Hong Kong Final Court of Appeal, two people familiar with the events told the Financial Times.
But she withdrew her candidacy for the city’s upper court after lawmakers raised concerns about the nomination, 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 knew her thinking.
Beijing has 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 also not made any significant changes to Hong Kong’s common law legal system. But such a move would be serious concern international companies, Many of whom have established regional headquarters in the city in part because of their independent judiciary.
Yuen’s appointment was recommended last year by the Judicial Officers ’Recommendation Commission, a semi-independent body that takes into account judicial positions in Hong Kong, and was scheduled to be approved by Carrie Lam, the executive director of the city, said the two people familiar with the events.
Hong Kong’s de facto parliament, the Legislative Council, is required to confirm the candidate’s candidates for the highest judicial positions. In the past, this step has been seen as 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 legislative panel on the administration of justice and legal services, which is dominated by pro-Beijing lawmakers, has asked justice and government officials to discuss the appointment.
Aside from her objection that Ma could continue to have an influence on the court through Yuen, lawmakers also said she took a long time to pass judgments, according to a person with knowledge of her thinking.
Investigations by the politician have led to Yuen withdrawing his appointment, according to two people with knowledge of the events, the first known case of this nature. Yuen addressed all requests for comments on the incident to the judiciary, which he declined to elaborate on.
The commission then selected another judge, Johnson Lam, to be appointed.
Insiders said Lam was not considered more conservative or liberal in his judgments than Yuen, nor that there was evidence that lawmakers had acted on Beijing’s orders in Yuen’s case.
But senior legal figures were concerned that the Yuen case could set a precedent for the Legislative Council, which is dominated by pro-Beijing politicians, to formally review judicial nominations. This in turn could undermine the authority of the JORC, the judicial committee of appointment.
An elderly legal figure said the political review of the appointments could lead to judges being chosen based on their loyalty to Beijing rather than their capabilities, and could deters the best candidates to come forward.
Johannes Chan, a legal scholar at the University of Hong Kong, said the Yuen case was a “very bad and worrying development for judicial independence.”
“It provides a channel for political interference with the appointment of key judicial personnel from the [legislature] which is dominated by pro-Beijing politicians, ”Chan said.
Critics have hailed the government’s decision last year appoint separate judges for cases involving the national security law, which was introduced into the territory by Beijing last year after the protests, had already hurt perceptions of judicial independence.
The Tong Ying-kit process, u first person in charge according to the security law, it will start Wednesday before these judges.
Lawmakers Chow and Quat declined to comment on the Yuen case. Carrie Lam declined to comment but said: “All 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 legislative panel on the 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. ”from its panel on the nomination process.