Despite government commitment to equal opportunities for all, many discriminatory practices are still entrenched by policies and legislation. More often than not, the court needs to step in to speed up necessary overhaul, as in the case with the victory of the fight for same-sex spousal benefits and joint taxation assessment by a gay civil servant. While it has been years since the legal battle first came to light, reform and compliance remain awfully slow.
In a postscript to the landmark ruling handed down in June, the Court of Final Appeal told the government to backdate the benefits by two years, when senior immigration officer Angus Leung Chun-kwong won the first challenge in a lower court. The government took the case to the Court of Appeal and won last year, but the ruling was overturned by the highest court. Separately, the Inland Revenue Department has been given six months to deal with the necessary changes. The "marriage" in tax law is to include same-sex marriage registered overseas. Any references to "husband and wife" shall become a married person and his or her spouse.
The development may sound incremental. But this is a positive step for compliance. The new tax arrangement for same-sex couples applies not just to civil servants, but also those who are legally married outside Hong Kong. The ruling on government spousal benefits also has wider implication for the private sector. It is to be hoped that more good employers will follow suit.
Indeed, the government should launch a major review of all policies and rules that discriminate against same-sex relationships. A study of the city's statute commissioned by the city's anti-discrimination body found that there are as many as 100 ways in which people in same-sex partnership can be treated differently from heterosexual married couples under the law. But the findings do not seem to be expeditiously followed up by the government.
The top court's ruling is only the first of many more steps to broader reforms. Instead of waiting for more lengthy legal battles to mandate long overdue institutional changes, a responsible government should proactively review legislation and policies to ensure that equal rights and opportunities are not just empty goals.
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