Proposals to retain Hong Kong judges are welcome
To uphold the rule of law, there must be sufficient numbers of those with legal experience to ensure justice is served and incentives to attract new talent
The rule of law under an independent judiciary is an enduring pillar of the city’s success.
While independence is paramount, the courts cannot live by that alone.
To uphold the rule of law, there must be enough judges and magistrates to see that justice is delivered in timely fashion, and the bench must be able to attract quality candidates from the legal profession to serve in the judiciary.
These are real concerns, with a growing pay gap between judges and lawyers in private practice, and seven out of 34 High Court positions and 36 out of 109 magistrate positions unfilled as of March.
In a paper submitted to lawmakers, government officials have backed a proposal by the judiciary to raise the retirement ages of judges and magistrates. This could make a difference.
The disincentive of a pay cut to lawyers considering joining the bench is compounded by the fact they are not allowed to return to private practice after retiring as judges.
Extending their working life on the bench, in line with an international trend to higher retirement thresholds, would help compensate for that.
Under the proposal to address the manpower shortage, Hong Kong judges and magistrates will be allowed to serve until they are 70 and 65 respectively.
As the current policy allows High Court judges to extend their terms for another five years at their discretion, the de facto retirement age for High Court judges and magistrates would be 75 and 70 years old respectively under the revised arrangement.
Permanent judges of the Court of Final Appeal are currently entitled to two, three-year extensions. District Court judges’ retirement age would remain at 65.
Supporting the judiciary’s plan, the government paper said it would enable the retention of senior judges, and attract experienced and quality private practitioners to join the bench.
An earlier consultancy study commissioned by the judiciary showed the pay gap between High Court judges and lawyers in the private sector widening from 42 per cent in 2010 to 60 per cent in 2015.
The changes would put Hong Kong on par with most common law jurisdictions.
The change is overdue and, hopefully, will be effective both in retaining senior judges and attracting talent to the bench.