Hong Kong's Chief Justice Andrew Li, a staunch defender of the city's judicial independence after its return to Chinese rule, said Wednesday he would take early retirement next year.
Li, who has led Hong Kong's judiciary since 1997, said he would resign on August 31, 2010, three years before reaching the retirement age of 65, and ruled out speculation that he had been under political pressure to step down.
"My early retirement is in the best interests of the judiciary. It will be conducive to an orderly succession planning," he told reporters.
Li said many High Court judges would reach their retirement age between 2011 and 2014, and that the resulting succession planning would be best left to a new chief justice.
Li is widely respected for his role in upholding the rule of law in Hong Kong despite Beijing's attempts to reinterpret the Basic Law, the city's mini-constitution.
In 1999, in a decision later overturned by Beijing, Li led the Court of Final Appeal in ruling that Hong Kong's government had acted unconstitutionally in preventing mainland-born children from living with their Hong Kong parents.
The affair sparked a constitutional crisis and prompted speculation that Li would not remain in his position for long.
Li later told the media that he accepted Beijing's right to reinterpret the Basic Law, but added that it should use this power sparingly.
Chief Executive Donald Tsang said Li's decision to take early retirement was "very sudden."
"I tried hard on two occasions to convince him to stay but was not successful," Tsang said.
Hong Kong has been governed under the principle of "one country, two systems" since its return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, with Britain's system of common law left intact.
Source: AFP Asian Edition