The Court of Final Appeal was placed in an impossible position by the Government yesterday. Legally speaking, the correct course would probably have been to refuse the administration's application for elaboration on the parts of its judgment concerning the National People's Congress. Courts exist to hear cases between parties, not to elaborate on something that someone dislikes. The Government's inability to cite any direct precedents for its application speaks volumes about the impropriety of an action which has set a potentially damaging precedent. But, once the administration chose to file such a high-profile application, the consequences of failing to entertain it made such a course almost inconceivable. Delegates attending next week's NPC would have seized on any refusal as an excuse for even more strident denunciations of the court and its decision, casting a shadow over the 'one country, two systems' concept. Such political fallout should not, of course, form any part of the Judiciary's considerations. But, by its whole approach to the matter, the Government left the court with little choice but to do so. In the event, yesterday's elaboration probably minimises the extent of the damage done by this unfortunate course of events. Although some will have their own purposes for trying to portray it otherwise, the elaboration does not seem to differ in substance from the original judgment. Its statement that the court cannot question any act of the NPC which accords with the Basic Law is merely a more tactful way of reiterating that it has the right to determine whether such actions comply with the mini-constitution, the issue at the heart of the controversy. If such a change of phraseology provides a face-saving formula for local leftists and mainland legal scholars to withdraw their previous objections to the judgment, Hong Kong will breathe a collective sigh of relief. Some may even accept reluctantly the damage done to the rule of law by the Government's behaviour as a price worth paying to forestall a greater controversy. What is absolutely beyond doubt is that the time is long overdue for the administration to come unequivocally to the court's defence. Its failure to do so so far has been shameful. But now the court has responded to this request for elaboration there can be no excuse for further hesitation. The future of the rule of law is at stake. Its preservation is vital for the good health of the SAR. In any clash of principles, the Government must put defending Hong Kong's highest court above other considerations.