RETIREMENT FROM WORK, or full-time work, is something that happens to everyone. For some people, retirement from the work that constitutes their main career in life is mandatory once they reach a certain age. This is the case with judges in many jurisdictions. Lexicon has previously examined the arguments for and against the requirement of judges to wear special court dress (China Business Law Journal, volume 10, issue 9: Wigs and robes). This column evaluates the policy reasons for and against the imposition of a mandatory retirement age on judges. It then considers the position in various jurisdictions, including mainland China and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR), and asks the question as to whether the mandatory retirement age for judges should be increased or abolished.
This question is becoming more relevant as a result of advances in medical technology, the consequential increase in longevity among older people, and the importance of reducing or eliminating various forms of discrimination (including discrimination on the basis of age).
REASONS FOR AND AGAINST
There are many policy reasons that have traditionally been used to support a mandatory retirement age for judges. As is often the case with policy, however, there are many counter reasons that should be taken into account in determining whether the current policy settings are correct.
Perhaps the most common reason in support of a mandatory retirement age for judges is that the mental capacity of people declines over time and, accordingly, judges should be required to retire before they reach that point. In reality, however, whether a judge experiences a decline in mental capacity occurs and, if so, the age at which it occurs are factors that depend on the individual person. It appears arbitrary to treat all judges in the same way. In any event, the experience of courts that impose no mandatory retirement age on judges, such as the Supreme Court of the US, might suggest that this reason does not apply.
Another reason is that the older judges become, the more likely it is that they will become unfamiliar with, or disconnected from, contemporary values in society. Although this might appear to be persuasive as a matter of logic, there are several weaknesses with this reason. First, the core obligation of judges is to apply the law and legal principles in adjudicating a dispute that comes before them. Although contemporary values may be relevant in assessing the facts of a case, there is no reason why older judges cannot inform themselves of contemporary values (to the extent that contemporary values are relevant) and manage any inherent biases.
Secondly, the same reality arises in respect of this reason as it does in respect of the first reason; namely, if there is a genuine concern that judges may become disconnected from contemporary values, the age at which this concern arises will depend on the individual person. Factors such as a judge’s background and life experience are likely to be more relevant in this context than the judge’s age.
A third reason that is sometimes raised in support of a mandatory retirement age is that it is good for older judges to retire in order to make way for younger judges who have new ideas and greater enthusiasm. There are, however, two weaknesses with this reason. First, experience suggests that judges reach their career peak in terms of their judging skills after 20 or 30 years of experience on the bench. This is why the average age of appellate judges in many jurisdictions is higher than the average age of trial judges. It appears anomalous – and a waste of judicial resources – to require judges to retire just after they have reached their career peak. Second, in reality, the courts in many jurisdictions suffer from a lack of experienced judges. It is for this reason that the courts in some jurisdictions allow judges who have retired as full-time judges to continue to serve as part-time or “reserve” judges. In other words, the problem is not that there are too few opportunities for younger judges; it is that there are too few experienced judges to meet demand.
Finally, it is relevant to note that in other workplaces, mandatory retirement ages have been removed to comply with anti-discrimination laws. If age discrimination is not acceptable in some workplaces, it is relevant to ask why it should be applied in the case of judges.
The PRC Judges Law contains the following provisions in respect of retirement:
The retirement system for judges shall be separately stipulated by the state according to the characteristics of judicial work.
After judges retire, they shall enjoy pensions and other benefits stipulated by the state.
To date, however, no separate provisions have been issued in relation to the retirement of judges. Instead, judges are subject to the same requirements that apply to civil servants. The Retirement Age Provisions for Veteran Cadres, which were issued in 2006, provide as follows:
According to the current policy provisions of the party and the state, the retirement age for cadres is as follows: for ministers and vice ministers of central and state organs, secretaries of party committees of provinces, autonomous regions, and municipalities directly under the central government, governors and vice governors of provincial governments, discipline inspection committees of provinces, autonomous regions, and municipalities directly under the central government, the main persons in charge of courts and procuratorates, (the retirement age) shall generally not exceed 65 years old for principal positions, and 60 years old for deputy positions; for cadres who serve as department heads, (the retirement age) shall generally not exceed 60 years old; for other cadres, (the retirement age) shall be 60 years old for men and 55 years for women.
Under the above provisions, the mandatory retirement age for most judges is 60 years for men and 55 years for women.
HONG KONG SAR
Following lengthy debate, the mandatory retirement age of judges in Hong Kong was increased for certain judges. An Amendment Ordinance that came into effect in December 2019 extended the normal retirement ages of judges at the High Court and above, as well as magistrates, by five years. As a result, the normal retirement age for judges of the Court of Final Appeal, the Court of Appeal and the Court of First Instance of the High Court was extended from 65 to 70, and the normal retirement age for members of the Lands Tribunal, magistrates and other judicial officers at the magistrate level was extended from 60 to 65. The normal retirement age of district judges was maintained at 65.
According to a news release from the Hong Kong government on 6 December 2019, this change was made “to enable the judiciary to sustain its judicial manpower across different levels of court, which is crucial to the efficient and effective operation of the judiciary”. In addition, the news release stated:
The extension of the normal retirement ages for Judges at the Court of First Instance level and above from 65 to 70 is expected to enable the retention of experienced senior judges and attract experienced and quality private practitioners to join the bench.
Interestingly, the reforms in Hong Kong were motivated by a perceived need to retain experienced senior judges and to attract quality practitioners to become judges. This reflects concerns about the lack of experienced judges to meet demand, as outlined above.
Mandatory retirement ages exist in other jurisdictions such as Singapore, India, Australia and Japan. A retirement age of 65 applies to judges of the Supreme Court of Singapore and judges of the Supreme Court of India. A retirement age of 70 applies to judges of the Supreme Court of Japan and judges at the federal level in Australia, including judges of the High Court of Australia and judges of the Federal Court of Australia.
Given the inconsistencies between jurisdictions and the counter reasons against mandatory retirement ages, including anti-discrimination laws, it is relevant to ask: Should the mandatory retirement age for judges be increased or abolished?
Andrew Godwin is currently a member of a World Bank team that is advising a central bank in Asia on potential reforms to its mandate. He previously practised as a foreign lawyer in Shanghai (1996-2006) before returning to his alma mater, Melbourne Law School in Australia, to teach and research law (2006-2021). Andrew is currently Principal Fellow (Honorary) at the Asian Law Centre, Melbourne Law School, and a consultant to various organisations, including Linklaters, the Australian Law Reform Commission and the World Bank.