Hong Kong’s High Court has temporarily barred the government from invalidating more than 20,000 Covid-19 vaccination exemption certificates issued by seven private doctors accused of handing them out without conducting proper prior clinical review.

Justice Russell Coleman ruled on Tuesday that the government could not annul the exemptions until a legal challenge against the move had been concluded. The exemptions were set to be nullified on Wednesday.

Kwok Cheuk-kin, nicknamed the “king of judicial review,” outside the High Court on October 11, 2022. Photo: Almond Li/HKFP.

The legal challenge was brought against Secretary for Health Lo Chung-mau by Kwok Cheuk-kin, nicknamed the “king of judicial reviews,” last Friday. Kwok argued that it was unconstitutional and illegal for the government to invalidate the vaccine exemptions in question because there was no law empowering it to do so.

Kwok Cheuk-kin, nicknamed the “king of judicial review,” outside the High Court on October 11, 2022. Photo: Almond Li/HKFP.

During a hearing on Tuesday, Kwok, who had no legal representative, said it would be “passing a judgement before a hearing” if the exemptions were voided before the doctors in question were tried, which would “go against Hong Kong’s spirit of law.” The matter was of public interest, he added, urging the court to block the government from annulling the documents.

Judicial reviews are considered by the Court of First Instance and examine the decision-making processes of administrative bodies. Issues under review must be shown to affect the wider public interest.

Grounds for invalidation

According to a government document published on Monday, scheduled premises that actively check people’s Vaccine Pass, such as restaurants, would not be able to accept the jab exemptions in question from Wednesday onwards.

Coleman said the government had issued a press release two weeks ago announcing its decision to invalidate the exemptions. He asked if the direction was only made official on Monday, then what was the legal basis for the government’s initial announcement.

William Liu, who represented the government on Tuesday, described the earlier announcement as “a warning.”

Photo: GovHK.

Liu said the administration was not “directly invoking any power to invalidate” the vaccine exemption certificates issued by the doctors in question, instead it was using existing regulation to instruct the premises not to accept such medical documents.

He also argued the alleged suffering or inconvenience caused to the holders of these exemptions was not that great because the government had provided them with various alternatives. They could visit a public hospital doctor to obtain a new exemption should they have a genuine need for one, the barrister said, adding the authorities had even waived the HK$50 consultation fee.

Interim injunction

After around two hours, Coleman ordered an interim injunction, barring the government from invalidating any medical exemption certificates until the judicial review had concluded.

Meeting the press after the hearing, Kwok said he had expected the court to grant the order.

“I requested that before there was a verdict [against the doctors], the exemptions should not be ruled invalid. What if the seven doctors were found not guilty?…Hong Kong is a place of rule of law, the benefit of the doubt belongs to the [defendants].”

Legislator Doreen Kong, who questioned the government’s legal basis to void the Covid-19 vaccination exemption certificates last week, told HKFP that she did not have much to say about the situation as she wanted “society to return to deliberations based on reason.”

Doreen Kong. File photo: Legislative Council, via Flickr.

She added that she thought she had fulfilled her duty as a lawmaker by clearly conveying her concerns, and urged the public to respect whatever outcome the judiciary decided on later.

The government on Tuesday evening announced “the suspension of arrangement to refuse the acceptance of the Exemption Certificates concerned… until the court has conducted substantive hearing on the judicial review case concerned and handed down further instruction.”

In a statement, it stressed that the investigation into the seven doctors was ongoing, adding that if those holding exemption proof from the doctors in question “continue to delay vaccination” they may be putting their health – and the public healthcare system – at risk.

“The Government urges relevant individuals to seek medical consultation again from other doctors depending on their needs to ascertain whether they are suitable for receiving Covid-19 vaccination,” the statement continued.

The case was adjourned to next Thursday.

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Almond Li

Almond Li is a Hong Kong-based journalist who previously worked for Reuters and Happs TV as a freelancer, and as a reporter at Hong Kong International Business Channel, Citizen News and Commercial Radio Hong Kong. She earned her Masters in Journalism at the University of Southern California. She has an interest in LGBT+, mental health and environmental issues.