Mr Justice Kemal Bokhary of Hong Kong's Court of Final Appeal will retire in October, putting more pressure on a judiciary that faces a shortage of judges.
Bokhary earned his nickname 'dissenting Pao' (a transliteration of his Chinese name) for writing far more dissenting judgments than other judges sitting on the top court.
He is known for his sense of humour, liberal thinking and concern about human rights and the underprivileged. As he is 65 this year, Bokhary must retire. He reportedly told a seminar at the University of Hong Kong on Monday that he was willing to continue as a non-permanent judge, but would have to await an invitation from the judiciary.
A judiciary spokeswoman said judges' terms were not automatically extended. 'It should be regarded as exceptional and would not normally be supported,' she said. But exceptions were made when the judiciary had operational needs and an extension would not hinder the promotion of junior judges, she said.
Some observers were concerned that a liberal might not be offered non-permanent status because of a record of dissenting judgments and strong opposition to seeking Basic Law interpretations from Beijing.
Alan Leong Kah-kit SC, leader of the Civic Party, said: 'He has been a very staunch advocate of human rights and the rule of law. His leaving the Court of Final Appeal is certainly a loss of a liberal voice of the bench.'
Martin Lee Chu-ming, the city's most senior senior counsel and a former lawmaker, said he strongly hoped Bokhary would get the appointment. 'I am concerned, really, what might happen if Bokhary is not appointed. I hope the legal community will not speculate, or think he is not appointed a non-permanent judge for political reasons.'
Lee, founding chairman of the Democratic Party, said chief executive-elect Leung Chun-ying - who Lee believes is an 'underground Communist Party member' - would soon have the power to decide which judges could sit on the bench. 'I'm concerned that the CE-elect will choose only obedient judges.'
Lee said it would be strange if Bokhary was not appointed a non-permanent judge, after two other former permanent judges - Mr Justice Henry Litton and the late Charles Ching - were appointed non-permanent judges after retirement.
The judiciary said this month that 45 of the city's 189 posts for judges and magistrates had been vacant since June.