Judges 'sit only 31/4 hours a day'
By LINDY COURSE
A THREE-MONTH survey of High Court judges has found they are sitting in court an average of only three hours 16 minutes each day, despite an eight-month-long backlog of cases.
The Chief Justice, Sir Ti Liang Yang, has asked for an extra two judges to help cope with the increasing number of cases brought to the High Court, even though he got an extra three posts last year.
However, calls have been made for the judiciary to make itself more efficient rather than asking the taxpayer to foot the bill for yet more High Court judges.
Mr James Allan, a senior lecturer in law at the City Polytechnic of Hongkong, had a research assistant monitor two different courts a day for three months.
He estimates that if 20 High Court judges sat an extra 45 minutes a day in court, it would be the equivalent of 41/2 extra judges.
Mr Allan also suggested that judges themselves should control their courts better, by granting less adjournments, for instance.
He said he was astonished to see that, in 110 days, only four requests for adjournment were refused by judges.
Agreeing to barristers' requests for postponements means the case lasts longer, and other cases have to wait. Judges themselves sometimes suggest adjournments for a variety of reasons.
''Even just 10 minutes extra a day in court would equal one additional judge,'' Mr Allan said.
But judges have their own problems when it comes to using their time efficiently.
One way to ensure judges sat longer in court would be to list cases for the judiciary's convenience, rather than as present for the legal professions.
''There is a policy decision that the listing should be done so counsel and solicitors are not kept waiting. This is consumer friendly, so the lay client does not have to pay legal fees for lawyers not in court. In England, the listing is done so that counsel may be waiting for a week for a case, and they are not allowed to take other work in the meantime,'' said one judge.
Thus, if a case unexpectedly ends, there are no cases which can be called on at very short notice and it may be hard to fit in another case before the next scheduled hearing.
Judges also complain that they have to use their valuable time doing routine typing work because they do not have a secretary.
''Never mind introducing information technology. We find it difficult to manage with no secretary. Even deputy principal Crown coun-sel [in the Legal Department] have a secretary.
''Judges have a typing pool, but the judgements take ages to come back and then they have a lot of mistakes, so we have to spend a lot of time correcting them and sending them back. It is absurd. The typists are graded too low.'' Another judge recounted an example of errors made by the typing pool. He recorded, ''Mr Kaplan submits that this case be heard in camera''; but it came back as, ''Miss Kaplan suggests that the case should be heard in Canada''.
''We are always hearing how important the rule of law is, but they don't even give us the basic tools to do the job properly. Judges have to write letters, speeches and papers and they need secretarial support,'' the judge said.
''It is also a disincentive to others to join the judiciary.'' He said Appeal Court judges had secretaries and they could dictate a judgement at 10 am and have it come back at 3 pm with few mistakes.
He went on to criticise the powers that be over delaying introducing recording systems to all High Court cases. Judges in civil cases are often still expected to take a note of what happens, which forms the record of proceedings.
''This is such a waste of time of valuable resources. It slows down the case to the speed of the judge's handwriting.'' In his speech two weeks ago, the Chief Justice blamed the administration for not providing the funds for introducing technology that should solve such problems. However, one source said, if the judiciary made its case forcefully enough, for secretaries and computers, it could get them.
Judges have other responsibilities when not sitting in court, such as writing judgements, which is why they are not expected to sit in court eight hours a day.
See also Page 11