Hong Kong court issues landmark ruling on benefits for gay couples

Participants hold a giant rainbow flag during an LGBT event in Hong Kong in 2014. Hong Kong does not recognise same-sex marriage or civil unions, and decriminalised homosexuality only in 1991.
Participants hold a giant rainbow flag during an LGBT event in Hong Kong in 2014. Hong Kong does not recognise same-sex marriage or civil unions, and decriminalised homosexuality only in 1991.PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG (AFP) - Hong Kong's top court ordered the government to grant spousal rights and benefits to the husband of a gay civil servant who married overseas, in a new landmark ruling for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights on Thursday (June 6).

The judgment, handed down by the Court of Final Appeal, is the latest instance where the judiciary found against the government and in favour of gay rights groups seeking greater equality.

Hong Kong does not recognise same-sex marriage or civil unions, and decriminalised homosexuality only in 1991.

Despite growing public support for gay marriage over the years, campaigners have made little headway against staunch opposition from the city's successive pro-Beijing governments and religious conservatives.

But they have started to see some success in the courts.

The latest case was brought by Mr Angus Leung, a Hong Kong immigration officer who legally married his husband in New Zealand in 2014.

When the newlyweds returned to Hong Kong, Mr Leung applied for his husband to be granted the same medical and dental benefits available to his married heterosexual colleagues but was rebuffed. He was also unable to register for married couple tax benefits.

On Thursday, five senior judges unanimously ruled that denying Mr Leung and his husband spousal rights for a marriage in New Zealand breached Hong Kong's anti-discrimination laws.

 
 
 

Government lawyers said granting spousal benefits would go against Hong Kong's legal definition of marriage as being between a man and a wife.

But the judges dismissed that argument.

The judges also said the government's reticence contravened the civil service's own published commitment to being an equal opportunities employer.

Thursday's ruling comes after a British lesbian won the right for her partner to be granted a spousal visa in Hong Kong last year.

The two rulings will now make it harder for Hong Kong authorities to reject legally recognised same-sex marriages conducted overseas.

Last week, a judge ruled that a series of archaic laws criminalising certain gay sex acts were unconstitutional.

Hong Kong's lower courts are currently hearing a challenge from a Hong Kong woman who wants to enter into a civil partnership with her female partner.

And a separate case has been lodged by two Hong Kong men directly challenging the same-sex marriage ban as unconstitutional.

Hong Kong's ban stands in contrast to nearby Taiwan where lawmakers made history last month by legalising same-sex marriage in a landmark first for Asia.