Fears over exodus of top judges

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 April, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 April, 1999, 12:00am

The Judiciary is facing an exodus of top judges, raising fears of a manpower crisis which could hit the quality of justice.

At least six of the most experienced High Court judges have either left this year or will leave in the next eight months.

They include Mr Justice Noel Power, 69, who has been a key player in criminal appeal cases and who acted as Chief Justice in the run-up to the handover. He retires next month.

Mr Justice Barry Mortimer, 67, a prominent figure in important criminal and civil appeals, including the landmark challenge by child migrants, leaves in August.

They will be joined by Mr Justice Nicholas Barnett, 58, who retires this month, and Mr Justice James Findlay, 63, who goes in November. Both judges provided valuable expertise in commercial and administrative law.

Two other High Court judges, Mr Justice Raymond Sears, 66, and Mr Justice Mohammed Saied, 69, retired earlier this year.

Another senior judge, Mr Justice Benjamin Liu Tsz-ming, is three years past the normal retirement age. He would not comment on how much longer he had in the job.

Concerns have been raised over the ability of the Judiciary to find suitable replacements.

Law Professor Yash Ghai, from the University of Hong Kong, said the departures were likely to hit standards at a time when experienced judges were particularly needed to handle crucial cases concerning the development of the Basic Law.

'We need to worry very much about these judges leaving and not having any very obvious replacements,' he said. 'There are not enough coming through the stream who are really outstanding.' Professor Ghai said it would be difficult to attract talented barristers to the Judiciary with the concern about political pressure from the mainland and cutbacks in judges' fringe benefits.

'There are a number of very capable barristers around who would make excellent judges. The difficulty is in recruiting them, they make so much money at the Bar,' he added.

The controversy surrounding the Court of Final Appeal's clarification of its abode ruling and high-profile attacks on important court judgments had also served to make the job of judge less attractive.

'Judges have been put in the frontline for various reasons. I think this is another factor,' said Professor Ghai.

The chairman of the Bar Association, Ronny Tong, SC, said the departures would leave 'a big void'. He had doubts about the ability of the Judiciary to attract many of the top barristers.

'There will be a lot of promotions from the District Court and from among the Masters, but when you look around, there are not a lot of shining stars,' he added.

The four Deputy Judges sitting at the High Court will be in line for promotion.

Legal sources say top barrister Robert Ribeiro, SC, has been earmarked for a job as a judge. Mr Ribeiro said it would not be appropriate for him to comment.

It is believed the promotions will be discussed at a forthcoming meeting of the Judicial Services Committee.

A Judiciary spokeswoman said there was only one vacancy at the High Court, which has a capacity of nine appeal court judges and 25 of the Court of First Instance.

She added: 'The retirement of judges is a natural process. This would bring forward a younger generation of judges to take the Judiciary into the 21st century. Vacancies will result from the retirements. The overriding consideration is to keep up the quality of judges.'



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