The Legal Department has at last decided to apply for Judge Brian Caird to withdraw from a case in which he is alleged to have come under pressure from two fellow judges and the New Zealand Government. It should have done so last week, when the Judiciary announced a full inquiry into the allegations.
The claims may prove to be unfounded. They have already been denied by New Zealand Foreign Minister Don McKinnon. However, the importance of ensuring that not the slightest suspicion of possible bias remains must override any consideration of the details of what is alleged to have taken place. By agreeing to step down from the case, Judge Caird would ensure neither side had even the most tenuous grounds for complaint.
Beyond that, however, the Judiciary should move fast to reveal the findings of its enquiry and take swift and decisive action to reassure the public of its immunity to influence. In this sensitive period, the matter of possible pressure on a judge is of serious concern. Assurances by the future sovereign that there will be no interference with the Judiciary and no pressure placed on judges are no doubt sincerely meant. But if there is a perception, however ill-founded, that even Governments of Western, Common Law jurisdictions may not be above trying to influence the outcome of trials, the temptation for others to exert behind-the-scenes pressure will become harder to resist. It would be all the more tempting if it were thought individual judges might be used to influence their colleagues.
The independence of the Judiciary and the rule of law are of paramount importance to Hong Kong's survival as a business centre and as a beacon of justice and decency in East Asia. The integrity of our judges must be unquestioned. Even so, continuous vigilance is required to ring-fence the Judiciary from any attempts to subvert its judges through lobbying, corruption or other, more subtle means. At the very least, there must be a mechanism for a judge to be able to take his concerns in private to his senior colleagues, or direct to the Chief Justice, if he believes undue pressure is being brought to bear. Arguably, that is what common sense should have told Judge Caird to do in the first place. But the existence of a formal mechanism might have saved him (and those he did choose to confide in) a great deal of unnecessary embarrassment.