Beverley McLachlin, the former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, has agreed to join Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal, the first Canadian to join the 20-member body.
An official with the Supreme Court in Ottawa confirmed the news. Ms. McLachlin, 74, joins the Hong Kong court at a time when other judges are reportedly feeling their independence is under pressure from China.
According to the Hong Kong court’s website, it is the court itself that invites judges from other common-law jurisdictions to sit as non-permanent members. The appointment of Ms. McLachlin and of Baroness Brenda Hale, the current President of the British Supreme Court, still need to approved by the Hong Kong Legislative Council.
Ms. McLachlin, who retired from Canada’s Supreme Court in December, is known for her defence of judicial independence. She wrote rulings legalizing prostitution and assisted dying and expanding Indigenous rights, setting her at odds with the Canadian government. In 2014, she became embroiled in a public dispute with then-prime minister Stephen Harper.
“She certainly has a strong sense of independence from the executive, and in this case that’s trouble,” DeLloyd Guth, a legal historian at the University of Manitoba law school, said in an interview.
Ms. McLachlin could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.
Since July 1, 1997, when Britain transferred sovereignty over Hong Kong to China, the 20-member Court of Final Appeal has served as the region’s highest appellate court, replacing the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London. Like Canada’s Supreme Court, it hears appeals on important questions of law and constitutional matters.
The region has its own constitution, known as the Basic Law, and its legal principles are founded on English common law.
But Reuters news service, citing interviews with four unnamed veteran judges of the Hong Kong Court of Appeal, and sources close to other judges, reports that the judiciary fears China is trying to limit the judges’ authority. China is doing this, Reuters reported, by establishing amendments to Hong Kong laws and by interpreting the Final Court of Appeal’s rulings in such a way as to undermine freedoms.
“There is a marked climate of unease among my peers” that “wasn’t there a few years ago,” Reuters quoted a judge as saying. Judges from foreign countries serve as part of a rotation, one month at a time. There is no mandatory retirement age for the foreign judges. The judges hear appeals in panels of five, which include no more than one foreign member.
Ms. McLachlin was Canada’s longest-serving Supreme Court chief justice, with 17 years in the position, and 28 years in total on the court.