Former judge saves millions in abode cases

THE appointment of a retired judge to run the Immigration Tribunal has led to fewer cases resulting in appeals to a higher court and saved the taxpayer $20 million in Legal Aid fees, according to Security Branch officials.

But experts say the Bill of Rights could lead to more appeals against the tribunal, especially for cases where its decisions lead to families being split up.

Officials say the appointment of a retired High Court judge as administrator to the tribunal last year boosted efficiency and saved costs in processing applications for appeals.

Mr Justice Barnes was appointed as the chief adjudicator to replace Professor Nelson Chow Wing-sun, a senior lecturer at Hongkong University and the chairman of the Social Welfare Advisory Committee who had served with the tribunal for eight years.

Tribunal adjudicators ruled on 234 cases last year with only three appeals brought up for review in the High Court.

That compared with 59 of 371 rulings requiring High Court review in 1991, one of the worst years for the tribunal, which prompted the decision to appoint legally qualified personnel to lead tribunal work.

Principal Assistant Secretary for Security, Mr Simon Vickers, estimated that up to $20 million in taxpayers' money had been saved.

The costs are mainly incurred in payments for Legal Aid to represent applications to the High Court.

Mr Justice Barnes is mainly responsible for the administration of the tribunal, at which cases are heard by a panel of two laymen adjudicators selected from a pool of about 80 people appointed for their proven record of public service.

Professor Chow said he had recommended the appointment of a legal expert to the post before he stepped down because of the increasing burden of work.

''I proposed to appoint someone with a legal background to head the tribunal because the caseload had increased so much in quantity and complexity that I felt I was handicapped without a legal background,'' he said.

''Mr Justice Barnes' expertise is valuable in dealing with the increasing emphasis on legal argument, rather than straightforward balance of probability, as in the past.'' Because of his training, Mr Justice Barnes had ensured legal points were fully addressed before the tribunal without the need for so many to be referred to the High Court, Professor Chow said.

Another retired High Court judge, Mr Justice Rattigan, has also been appointed to help with tribunal administration, Mr Vickers said.

But he forecast tough times ahead this year as the tribunal was expecting to hear bitter arguments in some major cases in which the defendants would allege that the immigration authority was violating the Bill of Rights.

Tribunal adjudicators would be expected to decide whether the immigration laws had infringed the basic rights of children born in China to stay with families in the territory.

The majority of cases heard by the tribunal involve disputes between the Immigration Department and parents over whether or not their children were born in Hongkong, which would allow them right of abode in the territory.

The children were usually deported to the mainland if it was found that they had been smuggled into the territory, or the parents failed to provide evidence of their children's birth in the territory.

Immigration officials have vowed to appeal to the Privy Council if necessary to sustain the existing procedure whereby children born in China do not automatically have the right to join their parents in Hongkong.