Hong Kong’s top judge said the judiciary is planning changes to procedures to speed up the handling of refugee claims amid a surge in such cases that has put much pressure on the already stretched courts.
Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li, in an unusual move, raised the issue while giving his address at the opening of the 2019 legal year on Monday.
“The judiciary will be liaising with the Department of Justice with a view to exploring the possibility of introducing modest legislative amendments to facilitate a more efficient handling of such torture claims,” Ma said.
The topic, together with the independence of the judiciary and retention of experienced judges, formed a major part of his speech at Monday’s ceremony.
Ma did not go into detail but later said he was only seeking to make minor changes to court procedures.
“What we have in mind are relatively minor changes and these deal with court procedures,” he said, adding the Bar Association, Law Society and other relevant parties would be consulted.
“In recent years, Hong Kong has seen an influx of persons who have made non-refoulement claims,” Ma said. “The substantially increased workload on our courts resulting from this type of case has given and will continue to provide much pressure on our courts at all levels.”
Non-refoulement is the principle of not sending someone to a place where they may be persecuted.
Hong Kong is subject to the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. When someone claims they could be subjected to torture, cruel treatment or persecution elsewhere, no party subject to the convention can repatriate the person to that place.
Claimants can take their case to a Torture Claims Appeal Board if they are not satisfied with the results of the Immigration Department’s screening. And if the appeal is not successful, they can apply for judicial review at the Court of First Instance. If this is refused, the decision is then appealed to the Court of Appeal and from there, to the Court of Final Appeal.
According to judiciary figures, the number of applications for leave for judicial review in relation to non-refoulement claims received by the Court of First Instance increased from 60 in 2016 to 1,006 in 2017 and about 2,900 last year.
The number of appeal cases also rose from one in 2016 to about 390 in 2018.
Ma’s idea coincided with government plans to tighten immigration laws to tackle an influx of non-refoulement claimants, including setting a time frame of three months for such a claim to be made, and authorising officers to repatriate claimants unless the court has granted their judicial review applications.
Officials also told an earlier Legislative Council panel meeting that of the more than 1,000 applications the court had dealt with since 2017, leave was granted for just 20, or 2 per cent. The rest were rejected.
Critics say the city’s system has been abused and that most claimants are illegal immigrants or coming to Hong Kong for jobs.
This article Hong Kong’s top judge Geoffrey Ma reveals plan for changes to procedures as soaring number of refugee claims puts extra strain on stretched courts first appeared on South China Morning Post