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Hong Kong courts

Let Hong Kong judges serve till 70 years old and magistrates till 65, government says in Legco plan

Judiciary proposals targeting manpower shortage in city’s courts could be passed within legislative year

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 July, 2018, 2:36pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 July, 2018, 10:56pm

Judges in Hong Kong will be allowed to serve until they are 70, and magistrates till 65, after officials backed a plan to extend their retirement age to address a manpower shortage in the city’s courts.

The judiciary hoped the proposal could prolong the service of judges “as long as practicable” and lure lawyers to the bench, a government paper submitted to the Legislative Council said.

In the paper, officials supported the judiciary’s mandatory retirement proposals, calling them “reasonable and essential” to sustain manpower across different levels of the city’s courts.

“This will enable the retention of experienced senior judges, and attract experienced and quality private practitioners to join the bench,” it said.

The government hoped the proposal could be passed into law before the current legislative session ends in July next year.

A significant pay cut has been cited as a major deterrent for lawyers considering joining the bench, as they are not allowed to return to practice and take up cases after retiring as judges.

An earlier consultancy study tasked by the judiciary showed the pay gap between High Court judges and lawyers in private sector widening from 42 per cent in 2010 to 60 per cent in 2015.

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As of March this year, seven out of 34 High Court positions and 36 out of 109 magistrate positions were not filled.

Under the judiciary’s plan to be put forward by the government, the retirement ages of judges from the High Court to the Court of Final Appeal would be raised from 65 to 70 years old, while magistrates would be forced to retire at the age of 65 instead of 60. District Court judges’ retirement age would remain at 65.

As the current policy allows 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 and the chief justice serving the Court of Final Appeal – Hong Kong’s top court – are currently entitled to two, three-year extensions, meaning they could work until 76 in future.

The government also adopted a judiciary proposal allowing judges who want to retire earlier for health and family reasons to quit at the age of 60 or 65 as they so choose.

The changes would put Hong Kong on par with most common law jurisdictions, and ahead of major regional competitor Singapore. Singaporean judges are required by law to step down at the age of 65, while the chief of Singapore’s highest court could remain in office beyond 65, subject to the Singaporean president’s approval.

Two former presidents of Britain’s top court, Lord Nick Phillips and Lord David Neuberger, have both supported a plan to raise the retirement of British judges from 70 to 75.

In Australia and Canada, federal judges must retire at 70 and 75 respectively. In the US, judges sitting on the Supreme Court are appointed for life, unless they choose to retire.

Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li in January called Hong Kong’s retirement requirements “outdated” and “low by world standards”, voicing hope the new plan would come into effect before 2020.

The change would apply to the 62-year-old jurist as well, but he also said in January he had not yet thought about his own retirement.