The authority of the Court of Final Appeal (CFA) would be jeopardised if the government continues to put judges in a political dilemma "unnecessarily", according to the head of the University of Hong Kong law school.
His warning comes as some lawmakers are urging the Secretary for Justice to withdraw the government's controversial request to the court to refer to the National People's Congress Standing Committee for clarification its own 1999 interpretation of the right to permanent residency under the Basic Law.
"We have no doubt about our judges, who are of strong integrity to safeguard the rule of law for Hong Kong. However, the government continues to politicise the court and is unnecessarily placing the judiciary in a political dilemma.
"If one day the public has lost its trust in the court, the legitimacy and the authority of the judiciary will be seriously damaged, and such damages are irreversible," Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun warned.
"One of the worst scenarios would be that the government directly seeks clarification from the standing committee after the court has decided against it. That is going to harm the authority of the CFA," he warned.
The government wants a clarification in light of both the surge in the number of mainland women giving birth in Hong Kong, where their children get residency, and challenges by domestic helpers to the law preventing them from seeking permanent residency.
Chan said Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung had put the Court of Final Appeal in a doomed political dilemma; whatever decision the court makes on the government's request for clarification by Beijing of the Basic Law, public opinion would be split over right of abode.
"While there are voices against the standing committee's clarification or interpretation of the Basic Law, with fears of judicial independence being undermined, there are strong voices from those who are anxious to see a stop to the influx of mainland mothers. Therefore, the court will face criticism from either side no matter what decision it makes. The issue is so politically and socially controversial the government is obviously passing the buck to the judiciary and washing its hands clean."
On Friday, Yuen refused to rule out the possibility of the government approaching the standing committee directly if the top court decides in February not to ask Beijing for a clarification.
"With the rapid economic development of the mainland after 1997, Hong Kong has started to lose its political and economic power. Its judiciary is the only thing left [intact]. Judicial independence and rule of law are the last pillar for Hong Kong, without which the principle of 'one-country, two systems' would vanish," Chan warned.
He said Hong Kong people should stand up to protect the authority of the judiciary, a major pillar of governance which he described "the most fragile in the government" compared to the executive and legislative arms.
"The court does not have a military or a police force, and it has no actual ruling power. Its power comes from the recognition and respect from the public. So people should speak out to protect the judiciary from political pressures," he added.
Meanwhile, Civic Party lawmaker and barrister Ronny Tong Ka-wah said it was not too late for Yuen to withdraw his request, to save the judiciary from a political crisis. "It is the best solution to end the dilemma," Tong said.
Civic Party leader Alan Leong Kah-kit agreed withdrawing the request was the best way out to safeguard judicial integrity. Failing that, Yuen should give an undertaking not to refer the matter directly to Beijing.