Hong Kong is facing a judicial crisis with almost a quarter of the city's positions for judges and magistrates lying vacant for at least nine months.
This has caused a backlog of trials which one lawmaker warned yesterday 'deals a blow to the very foundation of the rule of law'.
The judiciary admitted to a Legislative Council panel yesterday that 45 of the city's 189 posts for judges and magistrates had been vacant since last June, causing delays in the hearing of cases. Judiciary Administrator Emma Lau Yin-wah told Legco's finance committee she was authorised to start a recruitment exercise last June after several judges retired and others were promoted. But not one new judge has yet been appointed.
Lau said recruitment was 'ongoing', with 26 of the vacancies for magistrates - the most junior members of the judiciary.
Lawyer and lawmaker Audrey Eu Yuet-mee asked: 'The magistrates are the easiest to hire. Why is there still a shortage after such a long time? This is inexcusable.'
Lau said deputy magistrates could fill vacancies in the short term.
She added that the most chronic shortage was in the Court of First Instance, which had been most affected by promotions and retirement. Eu warned of potential damage to justice caused by delays.
'After you queue up a long time for a trial, you wait a great deal of time again for a judgment,' she said.
'It deals a blow to the very foundation of the rule of law and quality of the judiciary.'
An advertisement seeking applications for Court of First Instance judges was posted on the judiciary website last week. Applicants for the HK$210,000 per month posts must have 10 years' experience as a barrister.
According to the judiciary's annual report, the average waiting time for a criminal case in the High Court, which includes the Court of First Instance, rose to 53 days last year from 50 in 2010.
For civil cases, the wait rose to 117 days from 89 days in 2010.
Eu also asked Lau, who was appearing before the committee to request funds for the appointment of two magistrates to sit on the Lands Tribunal, why only three magistrates were assigned to work as coroners.
She said families had to wait for more than a year for an inquest. But Lau said the standard waiting time for an inquest was being met.
Legal sector lawmaker Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee said the judiciary should plan for the replacement of judges in advance, especially when it knew that a judge was retiring.
The Bar Association said the problem was not down to lack of interest among lawyers in becoming judges. And Albert Luk Wai-hung, a barrister, said the use of deputy judges acting on a short-term basis had helped keep the court system stable in recent years.
The judiciary said last night: 'The timing and frequency of recruitment exercises need to be carefully planned so as to achieve optimum results. It is not desirable for an open recruitment exercise to be launched each time a vacancy arises.'