A landmark Hong Kong ruling means gay expat couples can get spouse visas

Image: Reuters/Tyrone Siu
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Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal on Wednesday (July 4) issued a historic ruling that paves the way for immigration authorities to issue dependant visas to legally recognized gay couples the same way they do for married heterosexual couples.

The ruling found that a British woman, known only as QT, faced “irrational” discrimination by immigration authorities in not being awarded a dependant visa to accompany her female partner, with whom she was in a legally recognized civil union, to Hong Kong. It upheld an earlier appeal court decision in her favor. The Court of Final Appeal said that it was “hard to see how the Policy’s exclusion, on grounds of sexual orientation, of persons who were bona fide dependant civil partners of sponsors granted employment visas promoted the legitimate aim of strict immigration control.”

Vidler & Co., the law firm representing QT, hailed the ruling on its Facebook page: “The court recognized the essential humanity, dignity and equality of lesbian and gay members of our community and reaffirmed Hong Kong’s core principle, as enshrined in the Basic Law, of equal treatment for all under the law.”

QT had entered into a same-sex civil partnership with her partner SS in 2011, legally recognized under a 2004 UK law. Later that year SS was offered a job with a tech company in Hong Kong and secured an employment visa, while QT accompanied her as a visitor. That status didn’t allow her to work or study, and didn’t count her time in HK towards a permanent residence visa, unlike a dependant visa issue to a same-sex spouse. In January 2014, QT applied for a dependant visa, was denied, and in October that year sought a judicial review of the immigration department’s decision.

A lower court ruled against QT in 2016, which she appealed. Along the way, global financial firms expressed their support for QT to the court, on the grounds that a more inclusive policy would help Hong Kong-based firms continue to attract top talent. The Court of Appeals ruled in QT’s favor late last year, finding that current immigration policy was effectively discriminating against gay expat couples. The Hong Kong government appealed the decision to the Court of Final Appeal, resulting in today’s ruling.

The immigration department has already been issuing visas to same-sex spouses of Hong Kong residents in partial compliance with last year’s ruling, according to Vidler & Co., but the status of those visas rested on the outcome at the Court of Final Appeal.

The judgment from a five-member bench was careful to make clear that it wasn’t trying to open the door for same-sex marriage in Hong Kong, which conservative groups strongly oppose. Still, opinion about same-sex marriage is becoming more favorable, and this ruling could help lead to further acceptance.

A survey released this week by the University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Comparative and Public Law found that half of respondents said they were in favor of same-sex marriage, up from under 40% five years ago.