Tai lays down the law to bring order in the courts

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 October, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 October, 1994, 12:00am

ALICE Tai Yuen-ying has never worked so hard in her life. From 8.15am until well into the night she is trying to haul the judiciary into the modern era.

'There are two possibilities if someone has to work so hard, either they are incompetent or there is something wrong with the system; and I don't think I'm incompetent,' she said, in her first newspaper interview as judiciary administrator.

The dynamic Ms Tai has been at the helm of the judiciary for almost six months and crisis management is a phrase that frequently passes her lips.

'Once a system is in place, you can plan and anticipate changes,' she said. 'But at the moment, I'm taking it bit by bit.' Her responsibilities range from the sublime to the ridiculous. From the all-important aim of reducing court waiting times to the condition of public toilets in court buildings and all stops in between.

A 60cm-high pile of files that had come in for her perusal just that day sat on her desk.

The post of judicial administrator is new. Ms Tai has taken over administrative duties from the Registrar of the Supreme Court, Julian Betts, who has gone back to full-time court work. Ms Tai inherited an unhappy judiciary that was frustrated by Mr Betts' inflexibility. He also had a poor relationship with legislators, which resulted in the judiciary being starved of cash.

Her brief was to bring modern management into the judiciary, thereby cutting waiting times for trial. Ms Tai beat over 200 people, including many from Britain, for the job, which is ranked on a par with a High Court judge. Apart from her obvious administrative ability, the judiciary gained another advantage in the appointment: Ms Tai, who previously headed the intellectual property department, has terrific contacts within the Government, and she has no qualms about using them.

'I'm touching Government for services, people and money and so far everyone I have approached has come up with the goods,' she said, adding it was partly because everyone wanted to pitch in to help the judiciary.

Government budgetary planning being completely inflexible, she had only been in the job for one month before she had to submit annual estimates. Many things she is doing are therefore not budgeted for - quite an achievement in itself.

'I've got people on my team that the judiciary doesn't pay for - such as consultants from management services agencies,' she said. 'Treasury is also coming in to help us develop interfacing systems [with other government departments].

'Architectural services are going to make the lower entrance to the Supreme Court into a proper entrance hall, instead of a fire exit and there was already a full-time team of information technology people in the court before I arrived.' It did not take long for word to get round the judiciary - if you want something done - tell Ms Tai.

Judges and staff could see changes soon after she arrived. Even the public got extra telephones and drinks machines in the courts.

And then, just two months into the job, she got a vote of confidence from legislators when they agreed to give her $65 million extra for computer technology to cut waiting time for trials in the District Court - a request twice turned down before as legislators were not sure the money would be well-spent.

She is particularly pleased that she has been accepted by people within the judiciary. She had expected more resistance to changes, particularly from the judges. But they have found in Ms Tai a ready listener to their many problems and they have seen her produce results which have benefited all of them.

She recognised that the present number of High Court judges is insufficient to deal with the workload and has got an extra two posts. She aims to boost efficiency further by having judges handle their own list of cases. At first there will be a judge handling personal injury cases - selected because there are long delays, to see if specialisation helps speed trials up. This will be a six-month experiment that will become permanent if it is successful.

'If the judge is in control, he has a proprietorial interest, rather than just doing whatever case is put before him,' Ms Tai said. 'Let the judge decide how to run a system, hopefully so those who can settle do so earlier. We are also getting the profession involved in devising a scheme.' Judges are reported to be enthusiastic.

Ms Tai dismissed claims that the judiciary wasn't taking localisation seriously but agreed that to maintain standards, non-Chinese would continue to be appointed to the bench for the foreseeable future.

Conceding that it was a bit late in the day to be thinking about using Chinese in the higher courts, she nonetheless hoped it would be used in some courts by next year.

She has also put out a mission statement in a booklet entitled Serving the Community on what services the judiciary aims to provide.

Other changes in the pipeline are to do something about the much criticised surroundings of the family court, at present housed in gloomy surroundings in Wan Chai law courts. They are to be brought back to the High Court while new premises are found for them. While Ms Tai has decided not to redecorate the Wan Chai courts, on the grounds it may be a horrible colour, but it is not in bad repair; instead she has taken on the disgusting public toilets, promising to refurbish them.

She doesn't like being referred to as the powerhouse of the judiciary - but that is what she is undoubtedly becoming. She is approachable, listens carefully, and has made many improvements for staff and the public in a short time. She is perceived as someone who gets things done.

Happily, she is not alone in her task of planning and implementing systems to strengthen judicial administration. Ms Tai freely admits she has drawn quite heavily on the Robinson Report. Completed in 1986, and promptly ignored by the then chief justice, Sir Denys Roberts, as it was largely felt that the newly retired British courts administrator, Peter Robinson, had tried to write himself a job - it has proved a useful starting point for Ms Tai.

Like Mr Robinson, she also recognises the importance of a proper court reporting system so the judges no longer has to take a long-hand note of the proceedings and a pilot scheme is to be introduced in the District Court next month.

Asked about her priorities, she said her main one was to get through each day.

'There are so many immediate priorities,' she said. 'I'm rushed off my feet. So many things need doing by yesterday. I don't have enough time to think.' Ms Tai said she was forced to react to problems rather than be pro-active.

One point in her favour, Ms Tai believes, is that as a newcomer to the judiciary she carried 'no baggage' with her. While in the past there have been complaints about favouritism, she says people accept her only interest is in whether the job is being done well.

Ms Tai has a one-year grace period to see if she enjoys her work in the judiciary. After that, she has to stay there permanently, a concession to those who were worried about executive interference with the independence of the judiciary.

And will she stay? 'So far so good,' was all she would say.

If the judge is in control, he has a proprietorial interest, rather than just doing whatever case is put before him