GOVERNOR Chris Patten has cited the rule of law as the reason for almost everything he has tried to do for Hong Kong. That, and not the need for more democracy, was the reason given for pushing through his political reforms. Equally, it was the rationale behind strengthening the Independent Commission Against Corruption and its powers to fight graft. That is why Mr Patten is now caught in a bind over the Court of Final Appeal. He may know that the controversial 1991 accord, which limits the number of overseas judges who can sit on the new court to one, is deeply flawed and only tenuously reconcilable with the Joint Declaration and Basic Law. He also knows he faces an almost impossible battle in trying to persuade the Legislative Council to pass a bill establishing a court whose lifespan, in the absence of Chinese approval, will be numbered in months rather than years. By pressing ahead with what will appear to be a unilateral action, he faces a fresh row with Beijing, when it is probably the last thing that he wants. Such a careful assessment of the risks involved shows how far Mr Patten has progressed from the brash newcomer of two years ago when he was prepared to take on all comers, and damn the consequences. On the Court of Final Appeal, the Governor has obviously concluded he has no choice in the matter and must press ahead. Having spent two years trumpeting the rule of law, he can hardly leave behind a vacuum in the territory's legal system when he departs in 1997. It would be inconceivable that after the Privy Council stopped accepting new Hong Kong cases, perhaps as early as next year, there might be no higher court where Court of Appeal judgments could be challenged. Of course, Mr Patten would much rather proceed with China's consent. With little prospect of this, he has followed the only course open to him. Acting unilaterally will not be easy. China may threaten to dismantle the court, come 1997, and legislators will be reluctant to vote through the bill. Yet it is hard to see any better option. The Governor's only hope must be to get the court up and running as soon as possible, so that it can build up a solid track record, and show Beijing and the rest of the world, that it is worth preserving intact after the handover.