The revelation that the University of Hong Kong tribunal that inquired into pollster Robert Chung Ting-yiu's allegations about interference of academic freedom may not have been properly constituted has to be a piece of unwelcome news to those who have laboured to get to the truth of the controversy.
But however unwelcome, the views of several prominent lawyers that the wrong law might have been applied to form the tribunal must be taken seriously if we treasure the rule of law.
Lawyers often disagree over the meaning of a statute, especially if a particular interpretation best serves their clients' interests. But it appears the university staff association does have grounds to wonder why the tribunal has been formed under a section of the University of Hong Kong Ordinance that manifestly deals with the administration and management of the university's business affairs.
For one thing, whereas the obvious ambit of the section covers finances and accounts, the Chung row involves the conduct of individuals. Although the section provides for the appointment of 'agents' to administer and manage the university's affairs, it stretches one's imagination to see the function of the tribunal as administration and management.
Moreover, the ordinance has another section which specifically empowers the university council to entertain and adjudicate complaints from and redress grievances of members of the university. The implicit meaning of the section seems to be that such complaints and grievances should be handled by council members.
Could it be that this section was not invoked to form the tribunal because it does not provide for the appointment of people outside the university to investigate complaints - something the council wanted very much to do to give the inquiry an image of being truly impartial?
In setting up the tribunal, it is inconceivable that council chairman Yang Ti Liang, who is a former chief justice, and his advisers had not considered the fine points of the law. Indeed, in reply to the staff association's query, the university defended the legal status of the tribunal. The university should now spell out its grounds in detail to clear any doubts about the tribunal's constitution.
It would be a shame if the tribunal was not properly constituted. It was headed by a retired senior judge and its proceedings had some of the trappings of a judicial hearing, with several witnesses represented by the SAR's top legal guns.
Ultimately, the issue can only be determined by a court of law. But it is not at all sure if those directly implicated in the row would seek a definitive ruling by taking the matter to court. That would probably depend on how the tribunal's findings may affect their reputation and career.
In any case, ambiguities about the tribunal's legal standing are likely to buttress demands for further inquiries into the row, about which key witnesses have great difficulties recollecting its details.