International Judicial Monitor
Published by the American Society of International Law and the International Judicial Academy
Jan/Feb 2007, Volume 2, Issue 1

Global Judicial Dialogue

Regional Work of the Conference of Chief Justices of the Asia Pacific Region

Hon. Vida Petrovic-Skero Hon Robert Nicholson AO
Justice of the Federal Court of Australia, Perth, Western Australia

The Asian Pacific region is rich in diversity of legal systems.  Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong SAR, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand are among countries of the region with a common law inheritance.  Thailand, Indonesia, the Republic of Korea, Vietnam and Japan are examples of countries with a strong civil law inheritance.  Afghanistan’s legal system is Islamic and in Malaysia and Indonesia, for example, sharia law plays a part in the legal system.  Countries such as India and Japan loom large as against the Pacific Island jurisdictions, where customary law may play a meaningful part in legal regulation.  The Conference of Chief Justices of Asia and the Pacific is a unique gathering of the Chief Justices from this diverse legal background.

The Conference was first convened in Penang, Malaysia in 1985.  Meeting biennially, Conferences were then held in Islamabad, Pakistan and in Manila, The Philippines.  In 1991 the Conference met in Australia in Perth, the then location of the headquarters of the Law Association for Asia and the Pacific (Lawasia).  That was followed by meetings in Colombo, Sri Lanka and Beijing, Peoples’ Republic of China.  In 1997 the Conference met again in Manila.  The most recent four Conferences have been held in Seoul, Republic of Korea; Christchurch, New Zealand; Tokyo, Japan; and Gold Coast, Australia.  The next Conference, the twelfth, will take place in Hong Kong SAR.  Those attending the Conference are the Chief Justices of the nation states of the Lawasia region, stretching from Afghanistan in the west to Pacific Islands in the east; from Korea in the north to Australia in the south.  Countries among those invited to send their Chief Justices are the countries formerly part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.  In the event of a Chief Justice being unable to attend personally, it is usual for him or her to appoint a member of their court to represent them.

The administrative base for the Conference is the Judicial Section of Lawasia.  The Section is usually chaired by a Chief Justice, although not a national chief justice.  The Secretary is also a judicial officer, usually from the same court as the Chief Justice chairing the Section.  It is the function of the Section to convene biennially the Conference of Chief Justices.

The Conference is independent of Lawasia.  However, the Chief Justices decide at the conclusion of each Conference whether to reconvene at the same time and place of the next Lawasia Conference.  Usually there is agreement to convene in that way.  This enables Chief Justices to also support the Lawasia Conference by attendances at the Judicial Section papers and also at keynote addresses at the opening and closing sessions.  Apart from that, the Chief Justices will normally meet in another location, their agenda being entirely of their own determination.

To support the agenda, the Conference has turned to some of the Chief Justices to present papers.  In addition, the Chair and Secretary of the Conference have fulfilled the role of resource persons, preparing and presenting discussion papers on topics known to be of interest to Chief Justices.  For example at the 11th Conference, the then Chair the Hon David Malcolm, presented a paper on ‘Creating a Court of Appeal’.  Earlier he had led the Conference through the work of considering, settling and adopting the Beijing Declaration of Judicial Independence.  Likewise, as a resource person, I have presented papers on judicial education; courts and the public; judicial ethics, publication of judicial decisions in the region; and issues in court security.  Additionally, the Hon Judge Clifford Wallace of the US Ninth Circuit has been a prolific resource person, basing his presentations on prior surveys of opinion and practice among Chief Justices in the region.  For example, at the 11th Conference he led Chief Justices in consideration of ‘Balancing Administrative and Judicial Duties of Chief Justices’ and ‘Appellate Court Case Management’.

At the suggestion of the then Chief Justice of Korea, the Conference was instrumental in originating governmental consideration of mutual treaties for co-operation in the recognition of judgments between countries in the region.

There have been many law reform initiatives in the region.  The Conference has provided the opportunity for Chief Justices to learn of these proposals and consider their potential relevance for their own jurisdictions.  For example, major reforms in Bangladesh and Mongolia, the results of funding from the World Bank or the Asian Development Bank, have attracted particular interest.

The region has never been free of challenges to the rule of law.  Because of their political character, few of these challenges usually arise for discussion by the Chief Justices.  However, the presence of the Beijing Declaration provides an ongoing standard against which the well-being of the judiciary in any of the countries of the region may be measured by the public and commentators.

This contribution ends where it began, by stressing that the diversity of the region and the legal systems within it make the Conference of Chief Justices of the region a unique opportunity for communication on legal issues throughout the region at the highest level of the judiciary.  Despite the diversity of culture, religion and law, there is a shared common interest in the genuine application of the law in the vast variety of political circumstances in the countries of the region.

Justice Nicholson first graduated in law in 1959 with honors from the University of Western Australia.  In 1963 he completed a Master of Arts in law and government from Georgetown University, Washington DC.  In 1981 he added a Master of Laws from the University of Melbourne.  From 1963 to 1986 he was engaged in private legal practice save for a period of six years from 1975-1980 when we became the foundation Secretary–General of the Law Council of Australia.  After joining the Supreme Court of Western Australia in 1988, he was appointed Secretary to the Conference of Chief Justices of Asia and the Pacific, a post he will hold until next June.  In 1995 he became a judge of the Federal Court of Australia; he will retire next August on attaining the constitutional age limit.  Aside from judgment writing, Justice Nicholson is the author of articles in legal periodicals on issues of law and judicial and professional governance.  In 1992 he was the first Visiting Foreign Judicial Fellow at the United States Federal Judicial Center.  He currently serves as the Chair of the Foreign Advisory Board of the International Judicial Academy.

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Editors: James G. Apple, Andrew Solomon and Maria Staunton.
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