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FILE PHOTO - Participants march with a banner with rainbow colours during the annual pride parade in Hong Kong, China, November 7, 2015. REUTERS/Bobby Yip/File Photo

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By Venus Wu

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong's top court ruled on Wednesday that a British lesbian should be granted a spousal visa, upholding a lower court's decision, in a landmark judgment that could open the door for expatriates' same-sex partners to move to the financial hub.

The British woman, identified only as QT in court, sued the director of immigration in 2014 after she was denied a spousal visa that would have granted her resident status and allowed her to work without the need for a separate visa.

The woman and her partner, a dual British and South African national identified only as SS who was offered work in Hong Kong, had entered into a civil partnership in Britain.

"Although I cannot be with you in person today, that does not diminish the joy I feel, knowing that Hong Kong's highest court has upheld my right, as a lesbian woman, to be treated equally by the Hong Kong government," QT said in a statement issued through her lawyer.

The unanimous ruling by five judges brings to an end the landmark case involving rights for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, which has garnered support from more than 30 top global banks and law firms, including Goldman Sachs <GS.N> and Morgan Stanley <MS.N>.

Hong Kong is a popular destination for expatriates, many of whom work in the city's financial services and legal sectors.

Marriage is legally defined as a monogamous union between a man and a woman in Hong Kong.

There is no law against sexual discrimination in the Chinese territory which is governed under a "one country, two systems" formula that promises it a high degree of autonomy, a legal system separate from that of mainland China and an independent judiciary.

'SHAKY FOUNDATIONS'

The Department of Immigration said it respected the court's decision.

"We are studying the judgment carefully and shall seek legal advice as necessary before deciding the way forward," it said.

The public's support for same-sex marriage has "grown markedly over a short period", according to a study by the University of Hong Kong released on Tuesday.

In 2013, 38 percent of the some 400 people surveyed by the Centre for Comparative and Public Law supported same-sex marriage. A similar poll with more than 1,400 people last year found more than half believed same-sex couples should be allowed to marry.

In a 45-page judgment, the judges at the Court of Final Appeal rejected the government lawyer's argument that differential treatment between QT and a married spouse requires no justification.

It said the director of immigration's assertion that an obvious difference existed between marriage and a civil partnership was not accepted.

"The director's assertion that an obvious difference exists between marriage and a civil partnership rests on shaky foundations," they said in their judgment.

The court also said that while the director of immigration's policy aimed to attract foreign talent, the act of rejecting same-sex partners was counter-productive and not rationally connected to the aim.

The court had earlier dismissed an attempt by more than 30 global financial institutions and law firms to intervene in the court case, but acknowledged their effort in the judgment.

"As is evident from the attempted intervention of the banks and law firms, the ability to bring in dependants is an important issue for persons deciding whether to move to Hong Kong," it said.

(Reporting by Venus Wu; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree, Robert Birsel)

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