Allowing live chickens from the mainland to mix with local poultry at a wholesale market before bird flu tests were complete was "unlawful and irrational", local farmers argued as they sought a temporary ban on imports.
But Mr Justice Au Hing-cheung yesterday agreed to adjourn his decision until Tuesday after hearing that Secretary for Food and Health Dr Ko Wing-man would "make an announcement" on live chicken imports on Monday, after talks with mainland authorities.
The New Territories Chicken Breeders Association wants the High Court to issue an injunction against the director of the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department to stop imports of the birds until the department can devise a way to keep local and mainland poultry apart.
It wants the court to order the government to hold talks with mainland authorities to reduce chicken imports, provide "sufficiently separate" wet markets for local and imported chickens, and provide facilities for imported chickens to be kept until bird flu tests can be completed.
The application was made after the government last month ordered the slaughter of all 20,000 birds - local and imported - at the Cheung Sha Wan wholesale market. The cull on January 28 came after a sample from a chicken imported from Guangdong tested positive for the deadly H7N9 strain of bird flu.
"Because of the lack of facilities to house the imported live chickens pending the test results, the senior veterinary officer in effect has made a decision that puts local live chickens at risk of infection by the imported live chickens," the association said in its application for a judicial review.
The government's actions were "contrary to [its] constitutional obligation" under Article 119 of the Basic Law, which requires the government to "promote and co-ordinate the development of various trades such as ... agriculture and fisheries".
The association added: "It is clear that ... the director would again make the unlawful and irrational decisions to permit the imported live chickens to be removed to and detained in [the Cheung Sha Wan wholesale market] with local live chickens, continuing to prejudice the interests of the local chicken breeders as well as public health."
The association's injunction, if granted, would ban the director from allowing imported chickens to go beyond the Man Kam To border checkpoint.
But Au declined to grant the injunction yesterday on the grounds that "there may be some changes of circumstances" and because of the need to take into account the interests of others whose livelihoods depended on imports.
Ko held talks with chicken farmers yesterday over compensation for last month's slaughter. Wholesalers would receive HK$30 for each chicken culled, while breeders would get HK$30 ex gratia for each chicken that could not be sold at a prime age due to the trade's suspension.
Ko said the government was seeking a location to keep imported birds separate, but that such an arrangement would not be in place until after Cheung Sha Wan reopened on Wednesday. The market was closed for three weeks after the cull.
Five Hong Kong residents have been diagnosed with H7N9 bid flu in the latest outbreak. Three have died.