The selection of the new chief justice has never been so important. When the world delivers its verdict on post-handover Hong Kong the performance of the judiciary will be a decisive factor. Our courts are set to become a political battleground where every sensitive decision will be closely scrutinised. The duty of ensuring that the rule of law is maintained by an independent judiciary will fall squarely on the shoulders of the new head judge. Last week, the committee which will advise Chief Executive-designate Tung Chee-hwa on who to appoint, met for the first time. A decision is expected soon. The judiciary needs a leader of outstanding ability to ensure it meets the challenges posed by the change of sovereignty. Speculation about the appointment has rapidly gathered pace and two clear front-runners have been identified. Appeal court judge Benjamin Liu Tsz-ming and Executive Councillor Andrew Li Kwok-nang have emerged as the favourites. But are they up to the job? Question marks hang over both as supporters continue to lobby for the appointment. Mr Justice Liu, seen as the candidate backed by Xinhua (the New China News Agency), has long been regarded as a contender. But his appointment would be highly controversial. He has been the territory's most overtly political judge and has gained more publicity for comments outside the courtroom than those made in legal judgments. Twice there have been calls for him to resign over controversial sorties into the political sphere. Mr Justice Liu, 66, is widely regarded within the legal profession as a charming, kind and polite judge who has the best of intentions. But doubts have been raised about his expertise. One senior judge is said to have threatened to resign if Mr Justice Liu is appointed chief justice. He was born and educated in Hong Kong, matriculating from Wah Yan College in 1949. After three years at university he headed for England where he served as a pupil at Lincoln's Inn. Mr Justice Liu was called to the Bar in England in 1957 and to the Hong Kong Bar two years later. He worked for two English law firms before returning to the territory in 1959. A successful career in private practice led him to become one of the first of the territory's barristers to be appointed a judge. Soon after being made a Queen's Counsel in October 1973, he took up his first judicial post at the District Court. He was made a High Court judge in 1980 and spent 14 years in the position before being made a Justice of Appeal. It was well known that Mr Justice Liu did not get on well with former chief justice Ti Liang Yang. He had been passed over for promotion twice and was angered by the chief justice's remarks that there was no judge in the High Court who would be able to replace him. His promotion eventually came in December 1994, a year after his out-of-court comments about a sensitive legal issue sparked angry calls for him to step down. He shocked the legal community by telling newspapers that expatriate civil servants considering legal action against the Government's localisation policy had no chance of winning the case. Mr Justice Liu, who said other judges agreed with his view of the legal battle, was accused of compromising the impartiality of the judiciary and prejudging the issue. The controversy led to Mr Yang describing the judge's comments as 'ill considered'. Within months of becoming an appeal court judge Mr Justice Liu was again at the centre of a public row. His links with China have been forged through his position as chairman of the local Judicial Officers' Association. The organisation has been accused of being a 'political animal' which has blurred the distinction between the judiciary and the executive. In April 1995, Mr Justice Liu led an 18-strong delegation including local judges to Beijing for talks with Chinese legal officers. The trip sparked a storm of protest with expatriate judges claiming they had been left in the dark about the 'secret expedition'. Later that year Mr Justice Liu entered the highly charged debate on the Bill of Rights by backing China's proposals to water down the legislation. He told a pro-China newspaper that the hasty passage of the rights legislation had an adverse impact on the territory's legal system. The judge said the bill had dealt a blow to the judiciary and law enforcement agencies by curbing their powers to maintain law and order. He argued that the Basic Law provided sufficient guarantees of human rights. His comments have greatly concerned lawyers who feel it is unwise for judges to openly express such views. If Mr Justice Liu is made chief justice he will head the new Court of Final Appeal. He will, along with the other CFA judges, have the last word on important cases. Several barristers have said they would consider asking him to remove himself from any case in which they intended to pursue an argument based on the Bill of Rights. Mr Justice Liu's involvement in political affairs led to him being attacked by the Bar Association last April for attending the Preparatory Committee's first consultation exercise in Hong Kong. The association had decided not to co-operate with the body because of its opposition to the provisional legislature. China's moves to repeal civil rights legislation have also received the backing of Mr Justice Liu. In February, he told a university in the United States that scrapping parts of the Bill of Rights and repealing amendments to the Public Order and Societies ordinances would not hurt Hong Kong. The judge said he did not share Western worries about China's political influence on the territory's legal system. He was more concerned about better training for lawyers to ensure they deal with cases fairly and impartially. Mr Justice Liu's controversial career has certainly not deterred all lawyers and judges from backing him for the post of chief justice. He has a firm body of support from a dedicated band of followers who see him as the candidate best suited to look after Hong Kong's interests. Some have said it is important for the new chief justice to be the candidate most favoured by the Chinese authorities. This, they say, would result in the judiciary being left alone to get on with its job. Last month, Mr Justice Liu led what has been regarded as a successful delegation of judges and lawyers to Beijing for talks with Chinese officials. During the trip, members of the group were able to air their concerns over proposed changes to the Bill of Rights. But the judge's detractors accused him of using the trip as part of a campaign to be appointed chief justice. One top lawyer described Mr Justice Liu as 'an intellectual lightweight'. The same would not be said of Andrew Li, QC. The successful barrister turned politician, is still a firm candidate for the top judge's position, although he may be pipped at the post by Mr Justice Liu. Mr Li, 49, is believed to be the candidate favoured by Mr Tung. He was born in Hong Kong and educated at St Paul's Co-Educational College. He attended Cambridge University and was called to the Bar in Hong Kong in 1973. He specialises in the civil side of the law, particularly commercial law. Mr Li won praise for his work as chairman of the University and Polytechnic Grants Committee during which he fought for extra government funding for higher education. He also battled for the setting up of an independent research council in the territory. Mr Li has in the past been a member of the Judicial Service Commission, the body which advises on the appointment of judges. A highly regarded administrator, he was appointed to the Executive Council in October 1992, at the same time as Mr Tung. He is generally regarded as an excellent lawyer. One barrister said: 'He would have the total support of most members of the Bar.' But Mr Li is seen to have two factors against him. Some feel it is unwise to appoint a politician as top judge. It is felt it would be better to appoint a candidate from inside the judiciary rather than one who has such close links with the executive. Mr Li's lack of judicial experience is another concern. Would the head of the Court of Final Appeal be able to command respect when he has never sat as a full-time judge? Bar Association chairman Audrey Eu, QC, has called on the Judicial Officers Recommendation Commission, the group which will advise on who should be appointed, not to limit their consideration to two or three candidates. She said: 'The committee should be head-hunting the best person for the job.' Ms Eu stressed the importance of the appointment and urged the committee to make sure they get it right. 'I think it is critical that we have the right chief justice for the SAR in the beginning,' she added, saying the eventual office holder would need to be a strong, authoritative, popular person with grand vision. She drew attention to the challenges the new top judge would have to confront. There could be a legal challenge to the provisional legislature and the post-handover interpretation of the Bill of Rights would have to be settled in the courts. The Basic Law would be applied for the first time. The Court of Final Appeal must assert itself as a true replacement for the Privy Council and is likely to make the final judgment in the most sensitive and important cases. There is also the problem posed by the increasing use of the Chinese language in the courts and differences between the legal system in Hong Kong and China. Ms Eu said: 'The rest of the world will be focusing on Hong Kong at this critical time. Confidence in the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary must be established. 'We really need a very strong chief justice.'