COMPARED with their counterparts in England and other common law jurisdictions, lawyers in Hong Kong are comfortably protected from competition and market forces. Restrictive practices which abolished or relaxed elsewhere are still ferociously defended by professional associations here. Where the interests of solicitors and barristers conflict, it is not only the consumer but other lawyers that lose out. The right of audience in the higher courts is enjoyed by barristers alone. Only barristers and, perversely enough, solicitors who happen to work for the Legal Department, can become High Court judges. In recent years, rivalry between the Bar Association and the Law Society has grown increasingly bitter.
With the release yesterday of its Consultation Paper on Legal Services, the Government is at last taking the matter in hand. But its ideas for introducing new flexibility and competition into legal services will not be universally popular. The administration's proposal, under the Supreme Court (Amendment) Bill, to allow solicitors of 10 years' experience to sit on the High Court Bench is already causing consternation among barristers - but is no less sensible or welcome for being unpopular with the Bar. The archaic rules, restrictions and job demarcations which make litigation, conveyancing and almost every other activity requiring input from lawyers so prohibitively expensive will also have their defenders. But, then, many lawyers make a living out of defending the indefensible.
The Government's proposals are, in the main, eminently sensible, although some may feel they do not go far enough. They give consumers the right to demand information on fees, and abolish fixed fees for conveyancing, making it easier to shop around and get the best price. That in turn should force lawyers to price their services more competitively. They also call for an end to the traditional requirements that Queen's Counsel must be accompanied in court by a junior barrister or that a solicitor must be present whenever a barrister appears. There may well be occasions when a three-lawyer team is necessary; but often a single advocate will do. The savings in legal fees would be enormous - and there is no reason why a suitably experienced and qualified solicitor should not do the job in the High Court.
Proposals to eliminate conflicts of interest and make lawyers more accountable to their clients are long overdue. There may, however, be questions in some quarters about the wisdom of allowing conditional fees which are payable to the lawyer only if a case is won. While this would allow access to justice for those who cannot otherwise afford a lawyer or obtain legal aid, it may also lead to more trivial litigation.
Lawyers will be champing at the bit to give their views during the consultation period. But only if the public plays a full part in the debate - and the Government is prepared to listen with an open mind - will the consultation be worthwhile.