More judges needed to ease pressure: lawmaker

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 August, 2007, 12:00am

The chairwoman of the Legislative Council's legal panel has called on the government and the judiciary to hire more judges to ease a heavy caseload and speed up trials.

Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee, a barrister who chairs the council's panel on administration of justice and legal services, said she had learned from members of the judiciary and the Bar that some judges were struggling with an increasing amount of work as more people turned to the courts to resolve their disputes.

She said the situation was aggravated by the appointments of judges to sit on statutory bodies in recent years, including the Electoral Affairs Commission and Market Misconduct Tribunal. The impending civil justice reforms would place the judges under further strain, as they would be required to take a more hands-on approach to their cases, she said.

'The judiciary needs a more flexible budget so that it can open more judicial positions to cope with the caseload. This can also help retain experienced judges as well as provide opportunities for young talent to join the bench,' she said.

Ms Ng said in the past two years the panel had encouraged the judiciary to speak out if it faced manpower problems. 'We told the judiciary that the panel would be sympathetic and supportive if there is a case for more resources from the government. But the judiciary's response has been rather conservative.'

The South China Morning Post yesterday reported concerns over the retirement of many veteran judges in the higher courts in the next few years. Some legal experts said the statutory retirement age - set at 60 for magistrates and 65 for judges - should be raised to retain the top legal minds. Others believed the positions should go to younger talent.

'Whether a judge retires at 65 or 68 is not a matter of concern for the public. What they are most concerned about is whether their cases can be tried as soon as possible, whether judges are fair and just, and whether judgments can be delivered without delay. We have reasons to believe we need a better system,' said Ms Ng.

The number of judges dropped from 162 in 2002 to 155 in 2006, judiciary statistics show. While the waiting time for cases to be heard in the Court of First Instance has significantly shortened in recent years, the situation in the District Court and some appellate courts has worsened.

Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung SC, chairman of the Bar Association, said it would be a good thing to create more judicial posts if the budget allowed for this.

Solicitor Herbert Tsoi Hak-kong, who formerly served on the Judicial Officers Recommendation Commission, an independent group which makes recommendations to the chief executive on judges' appointments, said it would be better to have more temporary rather than full-time judicial posts to avoid a waste of resources when there were few cases.

A spokesman for the judiciary said: 'The need for sufficient judicial manpower for the judiciary is a matter which is under constant active review.' He said the existing arrangement where the judiciary submitted its resource forecast to the government before the administration finalised its annual budget 'ensures that adequate financial and manpower resources are provided to the judiciary'.

The spokesman said proper succession planning for judicial officers had been successfully carried out in the past 10 years and would continue.

Case overload

Examples of judges appointed to other bodies in past two years

- Justice of Appeal Wally Yeung Chun-kuen (left), chairman of inquiry into allegations surrounding Hong Kong Institute of Education (March to June 2007)

- High Court judge Pang Kin-kee, chairman, Electoral Affairs Commission (ongoing)

- Justice of Appeal Woo Kwok-hing (right), commissioner on Interception of Communications and Surveillance

- Three High Court judges screen applications for authorisations of interceptions: Pang Kin-kee, Azizul Suffiad and Andrew Chung On-tak (since August 2006)

- High Court Judge Michael Lunn, chairman of Market Misconduct Tribunal