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Exclusive: Hong Kong leader delays recruitment, raising questions over independence of judiciary

HONG KONG, Jan 31 (Reuters) – Hong Kong’s leader has vacated a seat on the panel that selects the city’s judges for more than five months, three lawyers familiar with the situation said.

The unprecedented delay raises questions about the autonomy of the city’s judiciary, the lawyers and nine diplomats and academics told Reuters.

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The appointment of judges by the Bailiffs’ Recommending Commission is increasingly important as some of these jurists will rule on issues such as prosecutions under a controversial national security law that Beijing has imposed on the city. in 2020 to punish subversion, terrorism, secession and collusion with foreigners. forces.

Lam delayed a decision to act on the appointment of British-trained lawyer Neville Sarony, who is in his early 80s, to the seat reserved for commission counsel.

Sarony recently criticized the Hong Kong government’s policies, expressing support for free speech and some pro-democracy lawyers. He declined to comment on his nomination.

Reuters could not determine the reasons for the delay.

A spokesperson for Lam said the “appointment of one (a) member” to the panel was being processed by the government and would be announced in due course.

The spokesperson did not respond to questions about why the decision on Sarony had been delayed or whether Lam would reject it outright and seek a new name from the Hong Kong Bar Association.

Pro-Beijing media and some Chinese officials have called the lawyers’ association “anti-China” for its criticism of government measures such as a 2019 proposal to allow suspects to be extradited to mainland China for be judged.

The absence removed the voice of attorneys from the panel, whose other seats go to judges, an attorney, the city’s attorney general and three others not involved in the practice of law.

In Hong Kong and some other common law jurisdictions, the legal profession is divided between barristers, who are courtroom attorneys, and barristers, who primarily deal with other legal matters.

“Without a lawyer, the establishment of the commission seems biased in favor of the establishment,” said a lawyer who has followed the committee for several years. “Lawyers can provide an important independent voice, particularly when the prosecution is represented by the justice secretary.”

City leaders have already acted within weeks to fill vacancies on the nine-member commission. For the past decade, public records show panel appointments were made before the predecessor’s resignation took effect. Lawyers say this highlights the routine nature of the process.

The selection “is usually just a formality but this time there is silence, and this strange delay”, explained a lawyer familiar with the situation. Another said Lam “seems to be waiting for a new team at the bar to come up with a new, more palatable name.”

By delaying the decision on the appointment of the lawyer, Lam is using his influence on the commission in a way that has never been seen before and it is strengthening the hand of pro-government figures on the panel, the diplomats, lawyers and academics said.

Lawyers and academics say they are not aware of a previous case where Hong Kong’s chief executive did not promptly accept recommendations from the Bar Association or the Law Society, the association of lawyers.

They say they fear the situation could further threaten the social and commercial freedoms secured at the financial hub when Britain returned its former colony to China in 1997.

COLONIAL HERITAGE

The panel, established in 1976, has operated in its current form since 1991, under British and Chinese rule. He reports to the Managing Director.

New Bar President Victor Dawes did not respond to Reuters requests for comment on Sarony’s appointment. Dawes said after his election on January 20 that his team would stand up for the rule of law and speak out on human rights issues if necessary.

In response to questions from Reuters to the committee chairman, Chief Justice Andrew Cheung, a spokesman for the judiciary, said the city’s chief executive had the power to appoint members to the committee, including a lawyer of her choice, although she must “consult” the bar association on the matter.

The spokesman said there was no question of the committee “acting other than independently”, in accordance with the independence guaranteed by the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution.

The commission is one of many legal legacies from the British era enshrined in the Basic Law, which scholars and lawyers say underscore the importance of maintaining the security of Hong Kong’s common law system under Chinese rule. .

Hong Kong elects a chief executive in March. Lam did not say if she intended to run again.

Jury deliberations are secret. It is a crime to divulge them or to attempt to interfere with them.

The committee made 45 judicial appointments in 2020 which “have been accepted by the chief executive”, according to the committee’s latest annual report. It was not clear if any had been rejected.

Sarony has been asked by the Bar Association to replace former human rights lawyer Philip Dykes, former president of the bar, who resigned on August 5 before the end of his term.

Dykes said he was unable to comment on his resignation.

Sarony, one of the city’s most experienced lawyers, has handled a wide variety of cases in Hong Kong since 1985 and is known for his personal injury work. He is not seen by his peers as a partisan political figure or, like some other lawyers, as an activist lawyer.

He also writes columns for the Hong Kong Economic Journal. Recent articles have included criticism of the Hong Kong government over its changes to legal aid and its COVID-19 quarantine policies. Some have also criticized the actions of the British government.

In April, he voiced his support for lawyer and former Democratic lawmaker Margaret Ng following her April 16 conviction for unlawful assembly. She was sentenced to 12 months in prison, suspended for 24 months.

“I have very little respect for politicians of all persuasions, but Margaret is that rare opinion, a dedicated, honest and committed representative of the people of Hong Kong,” Sarony wrote.

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Reporting by Greg Torode; Additional reporting by Jessie Pang; Editing by William Mallard

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