A judge yesterday urged the Immigration Department to consider negotiating with mainland authorities for an extension to the March 31 deadline by which about 1,000 failed abode seekers must go back across the border. Mr Justice Patrick Chan Siu-oi in the Court of Final Appeal expressed concern that those who had a genuine case for pursuing their claims further would be prosecuted across the border if they failed to return to the mainland by Sunday. Last Friday, a mainland official warned that if failed abode seekers had not returned by then they would face penalties including restrictions on leaving the mainland, a fine or jail. Mr Justice Chan said the Immigration Department should arrange with the mainland to make an exception for people who wished to remain in Hong Kong to dispute their abode disqualification. 'I am very anxious to expedite the matter. I have every sympathy with the genuine disputed cases,' the judge said. But he conceded any extension might attract more people to stay on. His comments came during a hearing yesterday to assess progress in the cases of 43 abode claimants represented by solicitor Peter Barnes. Principal government counsel Anthony Wu, for the Director of Immigration, told the court it was the department's understanding that the mainland had no intention of extending the grace period. Mr Wu said that rather than allowing abode seekers to stay in the SAR pending the outcome of their claims, they should go back to the mainland and let the cases be settled in their absence. He said the Government would make appropriate arrangements to bring them back at a future date if they were successful. A ruling in January involving 5,114 applicants found that the abode seekers were subject to Beijing's reinterpretation of two articles of the Basic Law, which overturned a January 29, 1999, judgment in favour of the claimants. Mainlanders who automatically qualify for abode include those who arrived before the handover and were born after at least one of their parents became a Hong Kong permanent resident. The top court has ruled claimants are also entitled to stay according to a government concession if they arrived in Hong Kong between the handover and January 29, 1999, and had lodged a claim for right of abode. Those who produced replies from the Legal Aid Department for legal aid dated between December 7, 1998 and January 29, 1999 also benefit. Last Wednesday, the top court called a hearing to assess the progress of the outstanding claims. The Government has yet to decide on the status of more than 800 applicants and there are a further 274 cases being disputed. Mr Justice Chan has ordered these abode seekers not to be removed from the SAR - despite the Sunday deadline - until seven days after formal orders are made by the court. A spokesman for the Immigration Department urged the mainlanders to return before Sunday's deadline, adding that the Government would reply directly to Mr Justice Chan on his proposal.