Rule putting HK$1m lawsuit cases into top court wrong, says judiciary

Judiciary says rule that pushes such hearings automatically into top court should be scrapped

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 July, 2013, 5:28am

The rule that lawsuits which involve a sum of more than HK$1 million must automatically be heard by Hong Kong's top court regardless of merit should be scrapped, the judiciary says, calling it highly undesirable.

But it has rejected raising the threshold, saying it would do nothing to stop unworthy cases tying up the Court of Final Appeal (CFA).

The proposed changes are outlined in a paper submitted to the Legislative Council. They have split opinion among lawmakers who practise as lawyers. Some fear it could make it more difficult to persuade the court's judges to take expensive cases further.

In justifying the changes, the judiciary says: "The present system is objectionable as a matter of principle. Linking a right of appeal to an arbitrary financial limit means that litigants involved in litigation beyond the threshold limit in effect have more rights than other litigants with smaller claims."

To retain the rule would mean "uncertainty, delay and worst of all, justice being denied [or delayed] to the party who has the merits in a case".

Most other common law jurisdictions do not have such a rule, according to the judiciary paper.

Appeals should be heard by the top court only if the legal question involved is of "great general or public importance", or otherwise deemed fit by the judges, the judiciary says.

As for raising the threshold for automatic hearings, it says: "Money or property alone, at any figure of monetary value, is simply not an acceptable basis for an exclusive privilege to appeal as a matter of right."

Senior counsels Ronny Tong Ka-wah and Alan Leong Kah-kit - both Civic Party lawmakers and former Bar Association chairmen - held different opinion about the proposals.

Leong said he generally welcomed them. "If you keep the automatic trigger, that would unnecessarily give the CFA too heavy a workload."

The time it takes from an appellant in a civil case serving notice of appeal to the top court and the court opening a hearing rose from 97 days in 2010 to 102 days the following year and to 105 days in last year.

Tong has reservations about the proposal.

"Very often it is not easy to persuade the CFA to allow a hearing," he said.

He added: "Rule of law means that justice is accessible to all. As I progressed in my legal career, I started to find cases which might on the face of it have lacked merit but were later found out to be worthy of consideration [by the top court]."

Tong supports retaining the threshold but raising it if necessary.