Privy Council sought a backup
THE Privy Council has been asked to consider extending its hearing of Hong Kong cases until a few months before China resumes sovereignty of the territory.
Fears of a Legislative Council revolt over the Court of Final Appeal (CFA) Bill has prompted the Government to draw up contingency plans.
In a further sign the Government is ready to take unilateral action on the issue, Director of Administration, Richard Hoare, revealed the Privy Council had been approached.
The Government had previously insisted a damaging legal vacuum could only be avoided if the new appeal court was up and running by the middle of next year, since the Privy Council - which can take 12 months to hear an appeal - would have to stop accepting fresh cases from Hong Kong from then on.
But Mr Hoare said he was now optimistic the Privy Council might be willing to 'fast-track' appeals from the territory after that date if legislators rejected the CFA Bill.
'This is our fall-back option,' he said.
'There does seem to be some room for manoeuvre. But we will only need to follow through with it if we can't get the court set up according to our timetable.' In London, a Foreign Office spokesman confirmed there had been contacts with the Privy Council on the issue, but downplayed their significance.
The contingency plan is part of the Government's increasingly detailed preparations to go it alone in presenting the bill to the Legislative Council if this week's Joint Liaison Group (JLG) meeting fails to produce a breakthrough.
Officials know a unilateral step will be poorly received by legislators, hence the contact with the Privy Council.
In an article in today's Sunday Morning Post, Attorney-General Jeremy Mathews warns time has almost run out for talks with Beijing on the bill, and the Government is prepared to risk establishing a court which will be dismantled after the handover.
'There is now only a limited time available for further discussion,' he says.
'Even if there was no guarantee of continuity in 1997, that would be no reason for the Government not to do what is clearly right, and clearly in the best interests of Hong Kong and set up the Court of Final Appeal.' Mr Mathews says the bill must be enacted by July, if the court is to be set up on time.
Even if that happens, it will take another 17 months before the court's permanent home in the French Mission Building is ready, according to an internal Government study by Judiciary Administrator Alice Tai Yuen-ying.
Ms Tai said the court would operate out of temporary premises for the first few months, but warned any further delays would jeopardise the whole process.
'We've started some of the preparatory work, but we can't do very much more until the bill is passed,' she said.
Among the preparations that have had to be put on hold is the recruitment of overseas judges to sit on the new court.
The most controversial aspect of the 1991 JLG agreement on the court allows only one such judge per case - but provides for the creation of a panel of foreign experts from which they will be picked.
However, Ms Tai said the delay in enacting the bill meant the judiciary had been prevented from approaching overseas judges to participate in the scheme.
Hundreds of technical amendments also have to be made to local laws before the new court can be established. The legal profession also needs to be consulted on its rules and procedures.
'We can't just adopt everything lock, stock and barrel from the Privy Council,' Ms Tai said.