Court Battle Wins Spousal Benefits in Hong Kong

Written by on June 6, 2019

Hong Kong’s top court ruled on Thursday that a gay civil servant and his husband were entitled to spousal benefits and a joint tax return, the latest example of an Asian government expanding rights for same-sex couples.

The ruling by the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal found that the authorities had failed to justify an earlier decision to deny those benefits to Angus Leung Chun-kwong, an immigration officer in the semiautonomous Chinese territory, and his British husband Scott Adams, whom he married in New Zealand in 2014.

Though the ruling was limited in its scope and did not legalize same-sex marriage in the city, Mr. Leung’s supporters celebrated the decision as an incremental but important victory.

The court has made it “possible for all other current and future civil servants to enjoy the rights they should be entitled to,” Raymond Chan, an opposition member in the city’s Legislative Council who is Hong Kong’s first openly gay lawmaker, wrote in a Medium post after the ruling was announced.

Mr. Chan noted that Mr. Leung had initially filed the case anonymously, but later “traded his cherished privacy to become the public face of a movement.”

Man-kei Tam, the director of Amnesty International’s Hong Kong office, called the top court’s ruling “a huge step forward for equality” in the city.

“This extensive victory brings Hong Kong more in line with its international obligation to respect, protect and fulfill the rights of people with different sexual orientations,” he said in a statement.

The ruling came less than a month after Taiwan made same-sex marriage legal in a first for Asia, and less than a year after the same Hong Kong court ruled that foreign same-sex couples, legally married elsewhere and living in the city, were entitled to spousal visas.

That case was brought in 2014 by a British woman, whose application for a dependent visa in Hong Kong was refused on the basis that marriage is defined in the city as the union of one man and one woman. She had arrived in Hong Kong to join her partner, a woman of South African and British nationality, months after they formed a civil partnership in Britain.

The British plaintiff claimed that Hong Kong’s laws were discriminatory, and more than 30 major banks and law firms — influential industries here — petitioned the court to participate in the final appeal.

In Mr. Leung’s case, a lower court initially said that the decision to deny the couple benefits, including joint tax assessment and medical benefits for his husband, “might constitute indirect discrimination” on the basis of his sexual orientation, according to a summary of the earlier case released by the Court of Final Appeal.

But the lower court said the decision was justified because Hong Kong law and the city’s “prevailing socio-moral values” considered heterosexual marriage “the only acceptable form of marriage,” according to the summary.

Those values appear to be changing. A 2017 poll by the University of Hong Kong, for example, found that more than half of residents surveyed supported same-sex marriage, compared with 38 percent in 2013.

And last month, the company that owns Hong Kong’s subway system reversed a decision to ban an advertisement for Cathay Pacific, the city’s flag carrier airline, that showed a same-sex couple holding hands while strolling barefoot on a beach. The ban on the ad provoked an immediate public backlash.

In its ruling on Thursday, the Court of Final Appeal explicitly noted that Mr. Leung’s appeal “does not concern the question of whether same-sex couples have a right to marry under Hong Kong law.”

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