Law Society fears for clients' privacy

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 May, 2006, 12:00am

The Law Society has attacked an 'unacceptable' level of protection for lawyer-client confidentiality in the covert surveillance bill.

It says the bill potentially undermines the rule of law and the integrity of the justice system.

In a paper to the Legislative Council Bills Committee, which is examining the bill, the professional body representing about 6,000 solicitors said there would be a great temptation for law enforcement agents to listen in on lawyer-client privileged communication.

'An officer is not likely to stop listening to the conversation even when it becomes apparent that a particular conversation is covered by legal professional privilege,' it said. 'Initially, the obtaining of the information may be inadvertent but there is nothing in the bill which prohibits the agents from continuing listening.'

It called for an express provision that agents would have to halt an operation if they stumbled across privileged communications.

'All clients expect utmost privacy in their dealings with their lawyers, and their confidence in engaging in full and frank discussions with a lawyer ... is an important aspect of the rule of law and the administration of justice,' the society said.

'It is of utmost importance that sufficient statutory safeguards be in place to guard against any intentional or inadvertent access to and use of legal professional privileged communications by law enforcement agencies throughout all stages of the covert operations.'

Even where a lawyer is suspected of being involved in a crime, the Law Society said the right to confidential legal advice of the clients who have nothing to do with the crime should not be overridden.

'Under the bill, once an authorisation is granted, the law enforcers are effectively given license to listen to a large number of truly privileged communications,' it said.

It called for a sound and reliable mechanism to ensure lawyer-client confidentiality is not breached, or else to ban covert operations against lawyers. It also called for an express provision that 'nothing in the ordinance shall be construed as authorising any access to [privileged] information by [law enforcement agencies]'.

In March, the Bar Association also expressed strong reservations about the bill's effect on legal professional privilege in its detailed submissions to Legco

A number of lawyers, particularly those involved in criminal or anti-graft cases, have complained in the past that they suspect their phones have been bugged.