FORMER attorney-general Mr Michael Thomas, QC, yesterday took a swipe at the Government and the Judiciary for failing to adopt any policy to localise the language of the law. No one in official circles had thought these matters through, Mr Thomas, now a leading lawyer in private practice, told the American Chamber of Commerce. ''No programme has been approved, involving the courts, the professions, and the academics to ensure that the common law is adapted to future service in the SAR by expressing it in the Chinese language or the Cantonese dialect for all to use,'' he said. ''There are no official funds allocated to the task to ensure that the necessary resources are applied to see this done.'' Mr Thomas said he thought it inevitable that there would soon be overwhelming political, social and cultural pressures to make courts fully intelligible to the community. Society would expect criminal cases, and other matters such as domestic disputes, trading disputes and inheritance matters, to be heard in Cantonese, he said. The real problem was that all cases involved the law, which raised the problem of legal language. There were virtually no legal materials published setting out in Chinese Hongkong's criminal or contract law or the law of evidence. Few Hongkong lawyers could address a judge confidently in Cantonese on common law principles, Mr Thomas said. Apart from a glossary emerging from the bilingual legislation programme, no established set of equivalent Chinese or Cantonese terms was available to practitioners for the common law principles, rules and concepts that had been honed and developed through the English cases over hundreds of years, he said. Changing the language of the law was to change the law, and that may be inevitable, for if the English language and law was not to continue here, over time a Chinese version of the common law would emerge, he said. The alternative was that English law would become discredited and would be supplanted by Chinese law, politically driven from Beijing and grounded in Putonghua. Bar Association Council member Miss Gladys Li, QC, also expressed concern that no steps had been taken to preserve the common law link, although it was the stated intention. ''We have to do something positive to preserve the link. If not, the link will not be there by 1997,'' Miss Li said. ''We should begin discussion on issues likely to arise after 1997, such as the use of Chinese.'' She said the use of language in courts would affect the recruitment of judges as well as the syllabus for law students but nothing had been done to prepare for the change. ''We are just drifting towards 1997 without any plan or policy in mind. It will create uncertainty,'' Miss Li said. Turning to the many treaties, laws and agreements that needed changing before 1997, Mr Thomas said they had proved more politically contentious and protracted than he had envisaged. Although the Chinese authorities had to be involved in international relations, more surprisingly they also wanted to oversee the localisation of statute law. Everything had become ''bogged down in that weary forum'', the Joint Liaison Group. He said two-thirds of the transition years had passed and much legal business remained to be done. He found there was much good about Hongkong's system, but said there was less enthusiasm for any radical change in the legal system - the consensus being to leave things well alone. But there were areas of concern - particularly in the court system and its management - so lawyers and judges would welcome the appointment of a new court administrator, he said. Seven years ago, Mr Peter Robinson recommended the appointment of a senior professional administrator to take charge of the management of the Judiciary. Mr Thomas said that despite support from the Executive Council, it was never implemented due to the dubious argument that it would undermine the independence of the Judiciary. ''The result has been ruffled feathers and seven lost years while the system bumbled on,'' he said. The Chief Justice and judges lacked the ability to systematically address problems, to research, cost and define policy options without skilled management to support them, he said. Without statistics and costs provided by administrators, the Judiciary lacked muscle when demanding resources for improvements from the Government. He said no one knew what the Judiciary's performance standards were, so litigants got what they were given. Little effort was made to minimise costs by eliminating wasteful processes. Days were added to the length of trials because highly paid judges had to write a record of proceedings. In one long case, Mr Thomas said, this was estimated to have slowed up the case by about 70 per cent. There were complaints about waiting time for cases and the way they were listed, on which Mr Robinson made detailed proposals. ''There is no routine screening of inactive cases, nor any positive judicial intervention to simplify trials in advance and to promote settlement. Criminal cases take too long to come to trial,'' Mr Thomas said. ''Far too much time is spent on investigating the admissibility of confessions. Criminal appeals have been held up. In one case, two prisoners in custody whose appeals were argued a year ago have still not heard the result and several waited in custody for five months before learning that appeals had been allowed.'' He said a Court of Final Appeal was urgently needed, saying it was not desirable to leave it until 1997. ''It must have the chance to develop its own reputation before the change of sovereignty and be hitched up to the through train,'' he said. ''The less that has to be changed at the junction, the better.'' He also stressed that legislation should be passed quickly to set up the Court of Final Appeal within the next year. If the issue were allowed to drag on until 1997, the territory risked a legal void when the Privy Council lost its jurisdiction in the territory. ''The problem will be what happens on the first of July 1997 when suddenly the right to go to London is abolished - there won't be a court here,'' he said. He said the Legislative Council's resistance to the composition of the court as agreed by the Joint Liaison Group sacrificed the good to the perfect. The composition of the court could be better, he admitted, but this was an issue the British and Chinese sides could discuss after the legislative machinery was set in motion. ''One step to take is to set up the court on the basis of the arrangements that are agreed. ''And the second step is to go on trying to persuade the Chinese authorities through the Joint Liaison Group that it would be very much better . . . if they could agree to have two [judges] or more flexibility.'' The head of the Hongkong University's Law Faculty, Professor Raymond Wacks, said it was not necessary for the court of final appeal to be established before 1997. He was not convinced that the court should be set up before 1997 so that it could acquire experience. ''The judges will be senior judges who should have a lot of experience and the operation of the court of final appeal is not that different from the Privy Council,'' Professor Wacks said. ''The argument sounds right but there is no fact to support it.'' Miss Li said the legal profession had not changed its stance in opposing the restriction over the number of overseas judges to be appointed to the future court of final appeal. The Sino-British agreement said not more than one overseas judge should be invited to sit on the court. Miss Li also queried how much experience could be accumulated if the court of final appeal was set up before 1997. She said there was no way for the court to have experience in the Basic Law, especially Article 158 which governs the interpretation of the Basic Law. Legislative Councillor Mr Ronald Arculli said the court of final appeal should have flexibility on the number of overseas judges. Mr Arculli said that according to the Basic Law the number of overseas judges could range from one to five and he saw no reason to change it.