Hong Kong judges question U.K. legal precedents in high-profile appeals case

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Chief Justice Andrew Cheung

25th June 2024 – (Hong Kong) Hong Kong’s top judges have aired scepticism regarding the application of British legal precedents in the appeal against the convictions of prominent media tycoon Jimmy Lai and six former opposition lawmakers. The group was previously found guilty of unauthorized assembly during a 2019 protest, with their legal representatives pushing for a reevaluation based on freedom of expression rights.

During the proceedings at the Court of Final Appeal on Monday, the appellants’ legal team cited two pivotal U.K. Supreme Court decisions from 2021 and 2022. These decisions supported the statutory defence of lawful excuse in cases where an accused’s rights were deemed violated by authorities. However, the bench, led by Chief Justice Andrew Cheung, remained unconvinced about the relevance of these British rulings to Hong Kong’s legal context.

Chief Justice Cheung expressed concerns about the implications of adopting a British legal approach, questioning its compatibility with the established judicial framework in Hong Kong. He highlighted the potential upheaval such an adoption could cause within the city’s criminal justice system.

Further complicating the matter, Justice Johnson Lam voiced reservations about the possibility of circumventing established law under the guise of challenging its constitutionality. Meanwhile, Lord Neuberger, a non-permanent judge from Britain, queried the application of a recent ruling that allowed defendants to question the legality of protest bans in ensuring proportionate convictions.

The case revolves around the appellants’ participation in what was termed a “water flow assembly” in Victoria Park, which led to their convictions in 2021. Following an appeal, some sentences were reduced, but the fundamental convictions remained, sparking this further challenge.

The Court of Final Appeal, which also includes justices Roberto Ribeiro and Joseph Fok, is expected to deliver its verdict at a later date.