Judicial independence cited in decision not to cut judges' pay

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 September, 2009, 12:00am

The salaries of the city's judges will not be reduced this year, after the chief executive accepted recommendations made under a new system for setting judicial salaries.

Citing the need to respect judicial independence, a government spokesman said yesterday that the Chief Executive in Council had ordered a pay freeze for 2009-10 in line with advice from the Standing Committee on Judicial Salaries and Conditions of Service.

It was the first time the new mechanism, separate from that which decides the pay of civil servants, had been used and followed an assertion by the government last year that there was no need for a law to protect judges' pay.

The decision comes as senior civil servants are smarting over a 5.38 per cent pay cut, which the Hospital Authority is passing on to its doctors.

But it is in line with recognised common law principles stressing financial security and security of tenure for the judiciary, and the committee said that nowhere else in the common law world had judges' pay been cut, despite the global recession.

A note accompanying the committee's review stated that in the light of the global economic downturn, other jurisdictions had postponed or moderated pay increases for judges.

'It is noteworthy that none of these jurisdictions proposed any reduction in judicial salaries in 2008 and 2009,' it said. 'Indeed, as stated in our 2005 report, some major overseas jurisdictions have constitutional or legislative protection against reduction in judicial remuneration as a measure to safeguard judicial independence.'

A key factor for ensuring judicial independence is the ability of judges to make decisions, often involving government actions and policies, without having regard to whether their pay could subsequently be reduced by the government. Legal sector lawmaker Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee said: 'How much you pay the judges reflects how important you consider their function to be.'

She noted that members of the committee were mostly from the business sector, without any judges. 'It's reassuring that this principle has been recognised by the business community and the general members of the public.'

Currently, Chief Justice Andrew Li Kwok-nang is paid HK$241,750 a month, while other Court of Final Appeal judges and the chief judge of the High Court receive HK$235,100.

In June, the government decided to introduce a 5.38 per cent pay cut for 18,700 senior civil servants whose monthly income is above HK$48,401. A pay adjustment bill was introduced to the Legislative Council in July and is subject to approval by the council later this year.

The Hospital Authority has also asked its doctors, on a similar pay scale, to follow the civil servants in accepting the cut.

So Ping-chi, chairman of the Senior Government Officers Association, supported yesterday's decision against cutting judges' pay. 'This is a direction and policy that we support. Indeed, we wish we could be treated the same too,' he said, adding that it would reflect the government's respect for the work of civil servants.