Hong Kong Top Court Grants Visa Rights to Same-Sex Partners

(Bloomberg) -- Hong Kong’s top court handed down a landmark ruling that will pave the way for visas to be granted to same-sex spouses of LGBT expatriate workers in Asia’s biggest financial hub.

The city’s Court of Final Appeal ruled in favor of a British lesbian, known as QT, who applied for a visa to reside in the city with her same-sex spouse. The court argued that the Immigration Department’s policy of encouraging workers to come to the city ran counter to its refusal to grant dependent visas for employees with same-sex spouses.

The decision puts Hong Kong at the forefront of a movement for gay rights in Asia, where only Taiwan is in the process of recognizing same-sex marriage. Banks including Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Credit Suisse Group AG and Nomura Holdings Inc. have long argued that discriminating against gay workers hurts their efforts to attract the best talent. Neither Singapore nor Japan grants gay spousal visas.

“This is a positive outcome not only for QT but also for the people and business community of Hong Kong,” according to a joint statement by 32 banks and law firms that supported the case. “This ruling strengthens Hong Kong’s ability to attract global talent and its competitiveness as Asia’s preeminent global center for commerce.”

The ruling means that the marriage status and civil union partnership of same-sex couples will be recognized in Hong Kong for the specific purpose of a dependent visa. Still, the city’s definition of marriage, between a man and a woman, remains unchanged.

Financial Hub

Financial institutions and foreign chambers of commerce for years have lobbied Hong Kong’s government to grant visas for spouses of expatriate gay employees so that they could attract talent to live and work in the financial hub. Hong Kong, which doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage, in 2016 began allowing same-sex spouses or civil partners of consular officials.

The plaintiff, QT, entered a civil partnership in the U.K. with her spouse -- known as SS --months before the latter secured a job and they moved to the city in 2011. After being denied a dependent visa, QT turned to the court to file a judicial review against the director of immigration.

“The Hong Kong government respects the decision of the court,” Secretary for Security John Lee said at a briefing. “Colleagues from the Immigration Department and the Department of Justice will be studying the judgment in detail. We will follow up the issues involved.”

The case and a separate one involving a Hong Kong civil servant have thrown the focus recently on rights for same-sex spouses in the city.

Spousal Benefits

In June the Court of Appeal overturned a decision in favor of granting the same-sex spouse of a Hong Kong civil servant the same benefits as those given to heterosexuals. The court found that the government had the right to protect the “status of marriage” through its policy of spousal benefits for civil servants.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has avoided showing support for LGBT rights in the city. At an event at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong last year she said she “noted” that an independent organization had won a bid for the city to host the 2022 Gay Games and the views of Hong Kong’s community needed to be taken into account on the subject of gay marriage, according to The Standard.

Support for gay marriage is increasing in Hong Kong, according to a survey released by Hong Kong University’s Centre for Comparative and Public Law on Wednesday. It found that 50.4 percent of Hong Kong people agreed with same-sex marriage in 2017, up from 38 percent in 2013, when the last survey was conducted. The study was the first to track changes in Hong Kong public opinion on legal protections for homosexual people, the surveyors said.

“It’s not just about expats’ rights, this has implications for the local community as well,” said Fern Ngai, chief executive of Community Business, a Hong Kong-based non-profit organization that works with companies to advance inclusive business practices. “It’s another step to advance LGBT rights in Hong Kong.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.