Top court's time is being wasted
The Court of Final Appeal has a unique constitutional role. Vested with the power of final adjudication in cases, it is the ultimate guardian of justice and a pillar of Hong Kong's success. Since the handover, the top court has delivered landmark rulings that define the new political and social order. It also provides businesses and individuals with a channel to seek redress in commercial disputes and civil rights infringements, furthering development of the law.
For proper use of public resources, it is important that only cases of sufficient merit and importance make it to the top court. At present, the law gives an automatic right for civil appeals to go there if the dispute involves HKS1 million or more. This is a development of the system which existed before the handover that allowed cases involving HK$500,000 or more to go to the Privy Council in London.
This provision was heavily criticised when top judges dismissed two cases involving mortgage and property rights disputes recently. The majority of the appeals coming from this route, as Chief Justice Ma Tao-li points out, are without merit and unarguable. Another judge said that appeals brought as of right, regardless of merit, only increase the legal costs of the parties concerned.
It does not take a top judge to realise this arrangement is a waste of time and public resources. As a standard apartment costs at least one to two million dollars nowadays, the provision looks out of place and open to abuse. Long queues and heavy caseloads have long been problems for the judiciary. The top court should be free to focus on the cases which really matter.
There is a strong case for abolishing the HK$1 million right so that more meritorious cases can be handled expeditiously. The Basic Law preserves the rights and principles applied and enjoyed before the handover. But that doesn't mean every provision is cast in stone and not open to change.