It was almost inevitable that the Court of Appeal should have yesterday overturned Mr Justice Raymond Sears' judgment that banning prisoners from receiving the racing sections of newspapers breaches the Bill of Rights. In recent months, the higher courts have repeatedly adopted a hostile attitude towards any attempt to put a broad interpretation on the civil liberties ordinance. Whenever a judge goes out on a limb, as Mr Justice Sears did in finding such censorship unlawful, the decision is invariably reversed on appeal, often with the addition of hostile language directed at the judge in question. The appellate courts are not infallible. When the Court of Appeal overturned a magistrate's dismissal of charges against the Ming Pao executives who revealed the existence of an anti-corruption investigation, the Privy Council stepped in to reinstate the magistrate's original decision. That does not necessarily mean yesterday's judgment will be subject to similar reversal. The Correctional Services Department firmly believes that banning racing pages makes it easier for it to manage its prisons, and the Bill of Rights does allow sweeping restrictions to be imposed on those in jail. But what should give rise to serious concern is not so much this Court of Appeal decision, in itself. Rather it is the harsh language the judges used in hearing the appeal, and the stringent restrictions this imposes on the scope of the Bill of Rights. Mr Justice Henry Litton's sweeping assertion that the Bill of Rights ought not be used 'to test the legality of an administrative act by the Government' threatens to emasculate what little will be left of the ordinance after the handover. Since the Preliminary Working Committee has already proposed stripping the Bill of Rights of its power to prevail over other laws, Mr Justice Litton would appear to be attacking the one other area where it could still remain of some use, by allowing legal challenges to any oppressive government actions. In doing so, he gives any future administration carte blanche to act as it wishes, without regard for the civil liberties implications. Nor is this the only instance of judicial hostility being directed at the Bill of Rights. Only three weeks ago, Mr Justice Gerald Godfrey railed against allowing 'half-baked' cases to be brought under the civil liberties ordinance. Last year's dismissal of the expatriate civil servants' legal battle against localisation showed the judiciary's willingness to add its own exceptions to those contained in the Bill of Rights, by adopting an extremely broad concept of public interest. After publicly revealing his hostility towards the Bill of Rights, Chief Justice Sir Ti Liang Yang pledged the courts would continue to apply the ordinance, as long as it remains on the statute book. But, by adopting an extremely conservative attitude towards any cases brought under it, the Judiciary, led by the Court of Appeal, is increasingly marginalising the practical effects of the Bill of Rights. If this trend continues then, by next year, it may be almost irrelevant whether Beijing carries out its threat to repeal some sections of the ordinance.