There is little justification for HK judges' outrageous salaries

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 September, 2009, 12:00am

Judicial independence is billed as 'the ultimate safeguard for the rule of law' in your editorial 'Judges' salaries need protection by law', September 24. In The Oxford Companion to American Law its only appearance is found indirectly under 'judges', in a cursory reference to James Kent, a New England jurist who 'championed the independence of the judiciary from legislative interference' in the 19th century.

It is an unworkable ideology which implies split sovereignty within a sovereign polity.

In a democracy, overplaying judiciary independence would interfere with checks and balances, which keep institutionalised separation of power working in unison. In a non-democratic body politic, judicial independence is a euphemism for judicial tyranny.

The judiciary is an integral part of the civil service funded by the same public purse to apply local laws and not a non-governmental organisation paid by some international purse to dispense transnational laws. Instead of mouthing judicial independence as an unrealistic slogan to justify a special pay scale for judges, it pays to focus on judicial integrity and performance to ensure they meet the high standard we expect from the civil service.

The Legislative Council should follow the example of the US Congress which keeps a tight rein over federal judges' salaries. When US Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to ask for a pay rise for federal judges in February 2007, his complaint over alleged congressional neglect for judicial salaries incurred widespread derision. Senator Richard Durbin, albeit sympathetic to the hike request, commented that what Mr Justice Kennedy was asking would give the federal judiciary higher salaries than 99 per cent of Americans.

Even with the pay freeze, Hong Kong's top judges are paid over HK$2.8 million a year, which is more than 74 per cent over their counterparts in the US Supreme Court after the latter's recent pay hike. Unlike American judges who hear and decide cases in the language of the American people, a large number of our judges are incapable of working in the language of the general public. There is little justification for their outrageous salaries.

Julia Kwong, Mid-Levels