HOW far can an Attorney-General, who is both a member of the Government and one of the chief ex officio defenders of the rule of law, be expected to maintain his impartiality and keep politics out of the administration of justice? That is the vital question underlying Legislator Anna Wu Hung-yuk's call for the Attorney-General to be more independent of the Government. In the run-up to 1997, it is no academic or theoretical issue. When the Legislative Council's legal affairs committee examines the matter in October, members will be only too aware of the dangers posed by any erosion of the public's trust in the Legal Department's impartiality. The object of the debate should not be to impugn the independence of the current Attorney-General, but to shore up Hong Kong's faith in the integrity of the system before the territory reverts to control of a society for which the rule of law itself is still largely an alien concept. The first task the panel should set itself, however, is to define the roles it expects the Government's chief law officers to perform. One of the Attorney-General's key functions should be to serve the Government politically, putting the case for its policies, acting as its legal adviser and defence lawyer and drafting its laws. In that role, the job cannot be separated from government or be viewed as in any way independent. However, whether he should also be responsible for public prosecutions, as he is in the United Kingdom and Hong Kong, is another question altogether. The combination of these roles is a source of potential conflicts of interest. Some Commonwealth countries have solved this dilemma by taking the Attorney-General out of elected office and elevating the job to the status of a High Court judge with security of tenure. As with other judges, the fact that the Attorney-General cannot be fired by the government is supposed to ensure his independence. In practice it may guarantee neither independence nor efficiency. That is not an example Hong Kong should follow. Here the Attorney-General is an unelected civil servant, although his job remains political, giving him a voice in the Executive Council and - until 1995 at least - a vote in Legco. This should be reviewed. It would matter less if Hong Kong followed the more sensible Australian example of hiving off the prosecution role to an independent. In Australia, the Attorney-General is an elected member of the Cabinet, but the DPP is appointed from the private sector for a fixed term and is answerable neither to the Attorney-General nor to the government for his decisions. Nothing can ultimately guarantee the independence of the public prosecutor if he is too weak to stand up to political pressure. But the Australian experience shows that a strong-minded individual can stand above the political fray and uphold the rule of law in defiance of the demands of political expediency.