July 4 (UPI) -- Hong Kong's high court ruled unanimously Wednesday that same-sex couples living in Hong Kong are entitled to spousal visas like married heterosexual couples.
The five-member Court of Final Appeal sided with a British citizen, known in court as QT, who sought a dependent visa for her spouse in 2011.
Without a dependent visa, a foreign partner could stay in Hong Kong on a short-term tourist visa, not be able to work or receive public services.
Although the ruling recognizes the dependent visa, the city's definition of marriage -- between a man and a woman -- remains unchanged.
The court decision is "a small step for us, but one giant step for equality in Hong Kong," QT, who is overseas, told reporters during a conference call.
Her lawyer, lawyer Michael Vidler, said the case didn't challenge the definition of marriage in Hong Kong, but "every step of the case is an advancement. I think it vindicates the idea that the time is now for a change."
Vidler said the decision could apply to housing, succession rights and adoption rights.
"Logically, if the government is going to apply this decision in relation to immigration policy, it should see that the writing is on the wall," he said after the ruling.
Before she secured a job and moved to Hong Kong in 2011, QT entered a civil partnership in Britain with her spouse -- known as SS, who was of South African and British nationality. After being denied a dependent visa, QT filed a judicial review against the immigration's director.
In 2016, QT lost at the Court of First Instance, which ruled it was an attempt to get same-sex marriage recognized through the "back door." Last fall, the Court of Appeal ruled unanimously in her favor.
In the 45-page ruling, the justices noted the department, besides maintaining "stringent" immigration control, also seeks to attract overseas talent. They said decision would boost business by allowing gay and lesbian employees to bring their spouses with them.
"Such a policy [of not granting a visa] is counterproductive and plainly not rationally connected to advancing the 'talent' aim,' when gay couples were not given access to the spousal welfare," said the panel of judges led by Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li.
Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu said the government respected the court's decision.
"We are studying the judgment carefully and shall seek legal advice as necessary before deciding the way forward," he said.