Hong Kong must maintain a strong and respected judiciary
A shortage of judges is threatening our high legal standards, and efforts must be made to attract and maintain talent
A highly skilled and impartial judiciary lies at the heart of Hong Kong’s rule of law. The threat of a manpower crisis among our city’s judges is, therefore, a concern. Last week, the government endorsed a significant pay rise for judges. They are already among the best paid in the world. But the raise was needed to bring their pay closer to that of lawyers of similar experience. It is a step which, hopefully, will help efforts to find suitable recruits. Nine out of 34 Court of First Instance posts were vacant in mid-November. Only 162 of the total 200 judicial posts were filled as of March. And 28 of our existing judges will reach retirement age in 2019. If the manpower problem is not resolved, it will become difficult to maintain high standards.
The increase in pay of 6 per cent for judges at the High Court and above, and 4 per cent for those below, plus an increase of 4.85 per cent for all judges backdated to April, make a position on the bench more attractive. Improvements in other benefits for judges, such as allowances for housing and education, also help. A benchmark study conducted last year revealed a striking 60 per cent gap between the pay of Court of First Instance judges and lawyers who are senior counsel. For these judges, the shortfall has risen sharply over the last five years. It is important to ensure that the pay gap between judges and lawyers does not become too big. Judges are not permitted to return to their lucrative jobs as lawyers when they retire. The financial package on offer must be sufficiently attractive to persuade good candidates to make such a commitment.
The pay rise alone will not, however, fix the manpower problem. Top lawyers will still need to take a big pay cut to become a judge. That has long been the situation, due to the high fees they can command in the private sector. It is often a sense of public duty which drives a lawyer to become a judge. More must be done to identify suitable candidates and to persuade them to opt for the bench. It may be necessary to increase the retirement age for judges. But fresh blood is also needed. The manpower shortage is placing a burden on judges who are facing longer, more complex trials and are increasingly drawn into politically sensitive cases. Judges have, in recent times, faced vocal criticism and even threats from people unhappy with their decisions. It is important that the status of judges is protected. Hong Kong must maintain a strong, high quality judiciary which can be trusted by the community to decide legal disputes freely, fairly and in accordance with established principles.