A 5.66 per cent pay rise for judges announced yesterday has left lawyers and lawmakers sceptical as to whether it will be enough to attract new blood to join the judiciary, which is due to see a wave of retirements.
Concern centres on the fact that 27 judges and judicial officers, or about a fifth of the total, are expected to leave the bench by 2015, according to a judicial salary review report.
In addition, figures showed that in March there were 144 judges and judicial officers, with 45 more posts needing to be filled - 11 more vacant positions than at the same time last year.
A breakdown showed 16 positions had yet to be filled in the High Court, where there are 37 judges and judicial officers at present. Twenty-two out of a total of 93 positions in magistrate's courts and other tribunals remain empty.
The proposed pay rise has yet to be approved by the Legislative Council's Finance Committee.
The monthly salary now for the chief justice is HK$251,950, while other permanent judges at the top court earn HK$245,000. Court of Appeal judges receive HK$220,850 and Court of First Instance judges HK$210,500.
If approved, the pay adjustment will be backdated to take effect from April 1 this year.
Dennis Kwok Wing-hang, lawmaker for the legal sector, said: "I'm worried whether we have enough judges and judicial officers to handle the substantial caseloads in the next few years."
He said the salary could be increased further to make it more attractive to judicial talent.
Noting that salary was not the only factor, he said the judiciary should also increase the headcount of judges to even out the distribution of heavy caseloads.
Kwok said the judiciary should also increase support for judges, for example by hiring more clerks and judicial officers, and make efforts to maintain judges' prestige and honour.
Civic Party leader Alan Leong Kah-kit, a senior barrister, said there had long been an understaffing problem. "Judges appointed are far fewer than meant to be," he said, adding that the pay rise should be higher.
To cope with the workload, the judiciary has engaged temporary judges such as deputy judges and recorder-lawyers sitting as judges for short stints. Despite a drop in the overall caseload last year, there has been an increasing number of complex cases that take longer to conclude.
In June, Court of Appeal judge Michael Hartmann left the bench after 21 years with the judiciary.
Court of Final Appeal judge Mr Justice Kemal Bokhary will retire in October when he reaches 65. His replacement, Court of Appeal judge Mr Justice Robert Tang Ching, is nine months older.
Over the next two years, the other two permanent top court judges, Mr Justice Patrick Chan Siu-oi and Mr Justice Roberto Ribeiro, will turn 65.