Hong Kong judges see lowest pay rise in eight years amid manpower crunch
Only 2.95 per cent increase as more than 20 per cent of posts on bench are vacant
Judges will get a pay rise of 2.95 per cent, the lowest in eight years, as Hong Kong’s judiciary seeks to bring salaries to competitive levels to tackle a manpower shortage that has left more than 20 per cent of posts on the bench vacant.
The government’s top advisory body, the Executive Council, on Wednesday endorsed the pay increase recommended by an annual judicial remuneration review report, which also warned that 32 serving judges and judiciary officials were due to retire over the next three years.
Experts warned that the new pay scales approved for this financial year would not narrow the earnings gap between judges and private legal practitioners, while increasingly politicised court cases could discourage professionals from joining the Hong Kong bench.
According to the pay review report by the standing committee on judicial salaries and conditions of service, only 158 of the city’s 200 positions on the bench are occupied – 15 vacancies at High Court and 27 at the magistrate’s level are yet to be filled.
The report noted that recruitment problems persisted, especially at the High Court level, with fewer eligible applicants than vacancies in the past open recruitment exercises.
The report also pointed out that while the volume of cases remained relatively stable in recent years, it did not reflect the increased complexity of cases and high ratio of unrepresented litigants in civil lawsuits, both of which required more time and effort for judges to handle.
Citing the findings of a study comparing the earnings of the public and private sectors in 2015, the latest report “noted a clear trend of widening differential between judicial pay and earnings of legal practitioners”.
A senior counsel in the private sector, for example, earned 60 per cent more than working as a judge at the High Court.
Current monthly salaries for judges at the High Court level range from $284,250 to $330,850, and from $330,850 to $340,250 at the Court of Final Appeal.
Annual pay increases since 2011/12 have been higher than this financial year’s adjustment. Last year, it was ramped up across the board by 4.85 per cent, while magistrates and District Court judges received an extra 4 per cent, and justices of the High Court and above were given an additional 6 per cent.
“The pay rise won’t improve the judiciary’s manpower shortage,” opposition politician and senior counsel Audrey Eu Yuet-mee said. “It’s only to keep up with inflation. The judiciary looks for the best people ... and if you compare what the best people are making, there is still a huge gap.”
Both Eu and professor Simon Young Ngai-man of the University of Hong Kong’s law faculty pointed to political pressure on the courts.
“For some practitioners, the recent public criticisms of judges or magistrates deciding politically sensitive cases may discourage some professionals from applying,” Young said.
But he also suggested there were many professionals still willing to join the bench and uphold the rule of law in Hong Kong.
Barrister and opposition lawmaker Dennis Kwok proposed raising the retirement age for judges at the High Court level or above to 70 years or more, and recruiting judges from other common law jurisdictions for cases that do not require Chinese-language proceedings.
Currently, the statutory retirement ages for judges are 60 or 65, depending on the level of the court, and extension of service may be approved up to 71 years on a case-by-case basis.
Pro-establishment lawmaker and barrister Priscilla Leung Mei-fun said young lawyers should be instilled with a sense of mission early in their career.
“We shouldn’t only focus on recruiting people at the top tier ... but also educate young lawyers about the meaning of being a judge so they will have such ambitions later in their careers.”
Under the Hong Kong system, judges are restricted from joining the private sector without special permission from the chief executive.