Name on the list of inevitable disputes

The one good thing about all the legal controversies now afflicting the Government is that they seem certain to delay still further the appointment of Carson Wen Ka-shuen as Solicitor-General.

Senior officials say it would not be 'fair' to Mr Wen to make any announcement while the row over Secretary for Justice Elsie Leung Oi-sie's failure to prosecute newspaper tycoon Sally Aw Sian is still rumbling on. The thinking behind this seems to be that as Mr Wen's appointment is sure to arouse strong opposition, he should be given the best possible start by timing the announcement so that it does not become mixed up with any other controversies.

So the post of Solicitor-General, which has been vacant since Daniel Fung Wah-kin left the Government last October, will remain unfilled for a while yet. There can certainly be no question of any announcement before the Legislative Council's March 10 debate, when legal representative Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee will move a motion of no-confidence in Miss Leung. Nor perhaps for some time afterwards, in order to allow long enough for the issue to die down.

Similar considerations may well apply concerning the controversy over China's rejection of the recent Court of Final Appeal judgment. Mr Wen is one of the local deputies to the National People's Congress, a group who met this week to discuss the issue and may play a key role in resolving it. So it would hardly be politic to announce his appointment - and so arouse charges of a conflict of interest - until this problem is also firmly in the past.

Opposition to Mr Wen seems to stem primarily from his political affiliations. While these should not be a factor in judging someone's suitability to fill a professional position, the reality is that, in the current climate, appointing anyone from a Beijing-friendly background to a government post is bound to arouse considerable suspicions.

A more justified objection is that Mr Wen does not seem to have the right credentials for the post. He has little advocacy expertise and his experience is largely in commercial law, which is hardly of much use in most areas of government legal work. And appointing someone who was censured by a Law Society Disciplinary Tribunal in 1995, for improperly disclosing the names of clients, will send a terrible message to other lawyers about respect for the rules by which the profession is supposed to be governed.

Nonetheless, despite the prolonged hesitation in announcing his appointment, there still seems little prospect of the Government changing its mind and choosing someone else. It is not as if there is a surplus of candidates.

Although 10 people applied for the post, four of these are thought to be government lawyers who are all far too junior to be serious contenders. That leaves only a handful of outside candidates. And at least one of these, Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference delegate Kenneth Chow Charn-ki, would arouse just as many political objections as Mr Wen.

While the identity of the other candidates is not known, it would be no surprise if many came from a similar mould. Given the disaster-prone record of the department over the past 18 months, it is hardly likely that many successful lawyers with pro-democracy affiliations put their names forward.

Mr Wen may even be the least bad among those who applied. Miss Leung's difficulty is that to try to use such a negative argument to justify his appointment would destroy what remains of the credibility of her department. Nor would it presumably leave Mr Wen feeling too happy either.

But it is a problem she will eventually have to face. While the present controversies may provide an excuse for postponing what looks certain to be the most unpopular government appointment of the year, they are only delaying the inevitable.