Waiting times lengthen for civil and criminal cases in Hong Kong
Judiciary seeks to ease pressure by hiring more judges and encouraging mediation
The waiting times for both civil and criminal trials in the Court of First Instance have soared up to 50 per cent over targets for last year.
The judiciary said lengthening waiting times were the result of many factors, including the retirement of judges, longer and more complex cases, the deployment of judicial manpower in the High Court "as a result of the elevation of judges to higher positions", and a rise in caseloads.
The number of civil cases coming before the Court of First Instance has risen by nearly 8 per cent in the past two years - from 15,966 in the 2011 financial year to an estimated 17,210 this year.
In Court of First Instance civil courts, the interval between applying to the judiciary to fix a hearing date and the start of the actual hearing was 244 days last year - more than two months longer than the target of 180 days. The waiting time was 215 days in 2010 and 231 days in 2011.
For civil appeals, the wait was 131 days last year, nearly six weeks beyond the 90-day target. The delay was even more severe in criminal cases, where the average waiting time was 180 days at the Court of First Instance last year - two months longer than the target of 120 days. The waiting time in 2011 was 169 days and 166 days in 2010.
The judiciary, which established the targets, said an open recruitment exercise for Court of First Instance judges had been in progress since the second half of last year, and that additional deputy judges had been appointed as an interim measure.
"The judiciary will continue to closely monitor the situation and will make every effort to improve the waiting times," it said.
As of April 1 this year, there were 29 vacancies in the judiciary, including positions for six Court of First Instance judges and nine registrars at the High Court Masters' Office.
Gary Soo Kwok-leung, secretary of the Joint Mediation Helpline Office, told the Post he believed mediation had to a certain extent already helped to bring down the number of civil lawsuits.
The use of mediation is one of the priorities of the civil justice reform that came into effect in 2009, as it helps to resolve disputes without litigation, saving court time and legal costs. Soo said it is successful in about 50 per cent of cases.
Soo, who is also a practicing barrister, said Hong Kong was making good progress in developing the use of mediation.
"Parties who have disputes over relatively small amounts of money - such as a few million dollars - are more willing to have their cases settled," he said.
"It is always after lawyers start to bill them for preparatory work, that the parties would start to feel the pinch and seriously consider the option of mediation to avoid litigation." Soo said.
But he admitted Hong Kong was five to 10 years behind the US and UK in the use of mediation.