In an unprecedented intervention, the president of the UK Supreme Court has publicly criticised the new security law imposed by Beijing on Hong Kong - but stopped short of withdrawing from his role in the region's Court of Final Appeal. 'The new security law contains a number of provisions which give rise to concerns,' Lord Reed of Allermuir said in a statement released by the Supreme Court this afternoon.
Under an agreement dating from the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997, two law lords - subsequently, Supreme Court justices - sit on Hong Kong's Court of Final Appeal. Following the retirement of Lady Hale, Lord Reed is the only serving UK judge currently on the roster, which also includes retired judges from the UK and other common law jurisdictions. Lord Reed noted that he is not scheduled to sit in the court this year.
In today's statement, Lord Reed referred to the Court of Final Appeal's work on 'cases concerned with rights of protest and free speech' - a role restricted by the new law, which bars foreign judges from sitting in national security cases.
While stating that the effect of the measure 'remains to be seen', Lord Reed said: 'Undoubtedly, the judges of the Court of Final Appeal will do their utmost to uphold the guarantee in Article 85 of the Hong Kong Basic Law that "the courts of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall exercise judicial power independently, free from any interference".’
He added: 'The Supreme Court supports the judges of Hong Kong in their commitment to safeguard judicial independence and the rule of law. It will continue to assess the position in Hong Kong as it develops, in discussion with the UK government. Whether judges of the Supreme Court can continue to serve as judges in Hong Kong will depend on whether such service remains compatible with judicial independence and the rule of law.'
Although Lord Reed will stress that he is speaking purely in his role as a member of the independent judiciary, his statement is likely to be interpreted by Beijing as a further sign of deteriorating relations between the UK and Chinese governments.