Problem-hit Judiciary compromises justice
By HEDLEY THOMAS
A JUDICIARY starved of basic resources and plagued by maladministration, inefficiencies and lethargy is compromising justice in Hong Kong.
An investigation by the South China Morning Post and interviews with judges in the District and High courts have identified a range of serious problems in one of society's cornerstones and grave fears for its future.
Chief Justice Sir Ti Liang Yang, who has begun what he calls a ''quiet management revolution'', says the Judiciary will lag far behind and might run the risk of not discharging its role effectively unless it ''moves ahead with the times and embraces a modern management culture''.
But the Post's investigations show that promised reforms may be too little, too late.
The Judiciary already lags far behind and cannot now discharge its role effectively. It has lacked a modern management culture for years.
''There is so much wrong in the Judiciary that putting it right, if indeed that's possible, will take a long time,'' said one of several judges interviewed by the Post.
Judges, angry and frustrated at what they condemn as ''the appalling, Dickensian'' state of the Judiciary, have made unprecedented criticisms of the management of the courts and tribunals that serve thousands of people.
Analysis of their concerns and those of others involved in Hong Kong's Judiciary for years, including barristers, retired judges, solicitors and legal experts, has highlighted fundamental failings, including: Worsening delays in the delivery of justice for defendants and victims, causing undue distress, inflated legal costs and prolonged incarceration for those - presumed innocent - who are remanded in custody awaiting trial. About 60 people have been on remand for more than a year and 170 for more than six months.
Institutionalised apathy and inertia, particularly in the administration of the District Court, which had more criminal cases and fewer judges nine years ago, but now takes three times as long to get around to hearing them.
Rancour, sagging morale and divisions in the Judiciary itself with judges hitting out at each other, their leaders and an administration which they are united in saying fosters ''disgraceful inefficiencies''.
Broken promises by senior judicial and government figures, including Sir Ti Liang and former chief secretary Sir David Ford on the performance and efficiency of the Judiciary.
A willingness to pay Hong Kong judges the world's most generous judicial salary, higher even than that of the United States President, yet deny the most rudimentary resources including secretaries and court reporters.
An increasing tendency of judges to allow almost every request from counsel for adjournments, whatever the reasons, contributing to a reduction in the sitting hours of a court and the amount of work it gets through.
The verdict of judges, legislators, lawyers and legal experts that the state of the Judiciary is one of the main disincentives to urgently needed local talent who might otherwise be persuaded to join the Bench.
An unworkable relationship between the Registrar of the Judiciary, Julian Betts, and the Legislative Council members who vet his applications for funding and resources.
Today, eight years after a government-commissioned six-month study, the Robinson Report, urged a high-level administrator be appointed to manage the Judiciary, Alice Tai Yuen-ying is taking up the job.
Ms Tai, formerly the director of the Intellectual Property Department, will spearhead what the Chief Justice describes as a ''quiet management revolution''.
Sources close to Ms Tai, who has been appointed on a D8 grade carrying the same salary as a High Court judge, said she was ''wondering what she's getting herself into''.
Some judges predict she will face a tough challenge from stalwarts who have built their own empires and fiercely oppose change.