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Introduction to Hong Kong's Legal System

The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, while constitutionally integrated into the People’s Republic of China, retains the common law system of governance used during its 150 years under the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom. On July 1, 1997, the sovereignty of Hong Kong was restored to China through an agreement known as the Joint Declaration of the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Government of the People’s Republic of China on the Question of Hong Kong.  According to the Joint Declaration, the Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini-constitution, provides for the continued operation of the common law and capitalist economy within Hong Kong through the application of a principle known as “one country, two systems.”

The Hong Kong governance structure includes executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The Chief Executive, whose term of office runs for five years, is elected by an 800 person Election Committee and then appointed by the central Chinese government. While the ultimate aim for the Legislative Council, according to the Basic Law, is universal suffrage, it presently has 30 of its members elected by geographic and functional constituencies, 24 by universal suffrage, and 6 by the Election Committee. The structure of the Hong Kong Judiciary includes the Court of Final Appeal, the High Court, which includes the Court of Appeal as well as the Court of First Instance, a variety of District Courts, and the Magistracy. There are also a variety of specialized tribunals.

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Official Sources of Law

Basic Law

The Basic Law is, in effect, the mini-constitution of Hong Kong. All public policies and practices must be based upon the Basic Law. In addition to setting out principles for the social and economic systems, the system to protect individual rights and freedoms as well as the political structure, it affirms that the capitalist system shall remain in force for 50 years from the inception of the Special Administrative Region.

Common Law and Rules of Equity

Hong Kong’s common law system utilizes judicial precedent as a process to interpret and enforce the law. According to Article 84 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong judges may refer to judicial decisions, as precedents, from any common law jurisdiction. Additionally, the Court of Final Appeal as well as the judiciary generally are permitted to invite judges from other common law jurisdictions to serve in Hong Kong.

Statutory Law

Most of Hong Kong’s law derives from statute and is found in the Laws of Hong Kong in the form of Ordinances. According to Hong Kong tradition, much of Hong Kong’s law is included in subsidiary legislation where the original legislation delegates to the executive body responsible for administering the law, the authority to create, in effect, by-laws.

Chinese Customary Law

Chinese customary law and rights are recognized in Hong Kong under certain circumstances; for instance, the New Territories Ordinance, Chapter 97, permits the courts to acknowledge and apply pertinent aspects of Chinese customary law, particularly in land inheritance matters.

International Law

In accordance with Article 13 of the Basic Law,  the Central Chinese Government retains control over foreign affairs; Hong Kong, however, as stated in Chapter VII, Article 151, may maintain and develop relations with states and organizations in the fields of economic affairs, trade, finance and monetary affairs, shipping, tourism, culture, and sports. Treaties do not have effect in Hong Kong until they are incorporated by legislation. International treaties and customary law may be applied by courts as part of the common law.  

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Print Sources

Laws of Hong Kong, published by Government Printer, LOC call number: KNR1.9 1951

  • A statute book in which all current legislation is placed.

Hong Kong Gazette, published by Government Printer

  • A publication which first publishes all Hong Kong legislation.

Addison’s Digests, LOC call number: KNR 2.23.A2 H66

  • A series of books that compiles and indexes summaries of published and unpublished law reports.

Hong Kong Law Reports & Digest, published by Sweet & Maxwell Asia

  • A publication of an indexed summary of major cases in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong Cases, published by LexisNexis

  • A publication of an indexed summary of major cases in Hong Kong.

Halsbury’s Laws of Hong Kong, published by LexisNexis

  • A publication including an encyclopedic statement of the laws of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong Public Law Reports, published by LexisNexis

  • A publication of an indexed summary of major public law cases in Hong Kong.

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Web Sources

For more information on Hong Kong see:

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Last Updated: 03/07/2014