New talent must be groomed for judiciary

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 July, 2007, 12:00am

One of Hong Kong's chief advantages over its regional rivals is the strength of its rule of law and for that, we are indebted to the experience and wisdom of our judiciary. Their dedication to ensuring the law is properly implemented and disputes fairly adjudicated is central to our city's success. The strength of the judiciary lies largely in the quality and experience of its judges. So concerns raised by senior members of the legal profession about the number of judges due to retire in the next five to seven years should be taken seriously.

This is not the first time there have been warnings of an impending manpower crisis in the judiciary, nor will it be the last, given the relatively small pool of legal talent we have at our disposal. In the past, the worst fears were not, however, realised. The judiciary has successfully brought in new blood and promoted judges internally to fill the gaps and to ensure that quality is maintained. It is important that this continues.

The demands placed on the judiciary are growing. As well as adjudicating cases in court, judges are also called upon to perform other duties, including sitting on inquiries. A shake-up of the civil justice system is on the way, which will place greater importance on the role of the judge in managing such cases. Adequate resources must be made available to ensure that the manpower and training needs of the judiciary are met. Quality is the key.

In such circumstances, the question of whether the retirement age of 65 for judges is too low requires attention. There may well be some benefit to be gained from allowing our most experienced judges to continuing working for a few more years. In some other jurisdictions the retirement age is 70. This issue is worth exploring. But the setting up of any working party or committee would have to be sensitive to the need to avoid a conflict of interest among judges who are approaching retirement.

Another way in which judges who reach retirement age could be kept on for a little longer while good replacements are found is to grant them extensions beyond the age of 65. This has been done successfully in the past. In principle, it is better to have a standard age when judges must retire; allowing some to stay on and not others may raise questions about judicial independence. But it is helpful to retain some flexibility so that a top judge in a particular field, for example, can be kept on a little longer if problems arise finding a suitable replacement.

More important, though, is the need to ensure the steady development of top-quality judges at all levels. This will be done by promoting from within and hiring judges from among the leading barristers. Attracting top-flight lawyers to the judiciary has never been easy. They can earn far more in private practice than in public office. It is usually a sense of public duty that persuades a top barrister to join the bench. But efforts must continue to ensure that the pay and status of judges is sufficient to attract the most talented members of the Bar.

Longer term, it is to be hoped that recent reforms to the legal education system will raise the quality of the profession generally and that this will, in turn, lead to a bigger pool of quality judges. The judiciary has managed to maintain its high standards since the handover. Vigilance is needed to ensure this continues when the current crop of senior judges retires. The rule of law depends on it.