Shortage of judges a worrying trend

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 March, 2012, 12:00am


Hong Kong prides itself on its rule of law - which remains fundamental to its success under the 'one country, two systems' framework - and its appeal as a place to live, work and do business. Lawmakers have rightly expressed serious concern that nearly a quarter of the city's positions for judges and magistrates have been vacant for nine months or more.

At least partly as a result, the average waiting time for a criminal case to be heard in the High Court rose to 53 days last year from 50 in 2010, and for a civil case to 117 days from 89 days in 2010.

It may seem almost a clich?to say that justice delayed is justice denied, but it remains true to say that it does nothing to uphold the rule of law and respect for it. When lack of manpower puts pressure on judges and magistrates, delays do not end with the hearing of a case. As lawyer and lawmaker Audrey Eu Yuet-mee said during a meeting of a Legislative Council panel, after queuing a long time for a trial, parties wait a great deal of time again for a judgment to be delivered.

'It deals a blow to the foundations of the rule of law and the quality of the judiciary,' she said. Granted, 26 of the 45 vacancies are for magistrates but, as Eu said, they are the easiest to hire. They also form a talent pool for higher judicial ranks.

Hong Kong is not alone among common-law jurisdictions in suffering from shortages on the bench, and the reasons for them are common, such as the recent retirements of several judges followed by promotions. But retirements can be foreseen. A judiciary official says she was authorised to begin a recruitment exercise last June, but so far not one new judge has been appointed. The judiciary has invited applications from barristers with at least 10 years' experience for HK$210,000-a-month appointments as judges of the Court of First Instance. It said later that recruitment needed to be carefully planned and timed to achieve optimum results and it was not desirable to launch an open recruitment exercise each time a vacancy arises. But many of these vacancies did not come as a surprise. In the short term, the judiciary has relieved the pressure by expanding the use of deputy magistrates and judges. This is also a useful way of identifying talent. But it is not the answer to a worrying shortage of manpower.

There have been concerns for some time about the number of senior judges approaching retirement. There is a need, which has been recognised in Britain, to step up the training of magistrates and judges to prepare them to move up the ranks. It is important not only to have high-quality judges and people from the bar entering the judiciary, but to ensure that those suitable for promotion from magistrate have the training they need. There is no shortage of law graduates each year. They need to be able to see that the judiciary is a good career move.