Lawyers' image will take a beating

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 August, 2006, 12:00am

The public's confidence in the legal profession will be shattered by new rules that will allow law enforcement agencies to bug lawyers and their clients, according to legislators debating the controversial covert surveillance bill last night.

Lawmakers from the legal sector begged the government to reconsider its stance on surveillance of lawyers.

The government's amendment to the bill stated the offices and residences of lawyers could not be bugged unless the lawyers were suspected of a serious crime or were considered a threat to public security.

Legislator Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee insisted the law stripped away the rights of clients to confidential legal advice.

'This clause is one that has caused a lot of concern among the legal profession. It would bring about a profound impact on legal professional privilege,' Ms Ng said.

'This is not about protecting the rights of lawyers. It's about protecting the rights of clients of lawyers. This is one of the fundamental factors of the justice system.'

Her rival amendments to the clause covering legal professional privilege sought total exemption for lawyers' homes and offices.

Ronny Tong Ka-wah pointed out that, under the Basic Law, people were entitled to confidential legal advice, a right that was being undermined by the new law.

But Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong legislator Li Kwok-ying said Ms Ng's amendment would create a 'haven' where criminals could freely discuss their plans for criminal activity.

Secretary for Security Ambrose Lee Siu-kwong, in urging legislators to vote against Ms Ng's amendment, said lawyers were not exempt from being criminals.

'I have worked in the disciplined services for more than 30 years and I have arrested quite a number of lawyers,' he said.

'There were cases whereby lawyers were involved in criminal offences ... it is not possible to exempt lawyers and clients from lawful interception of communications and covert surveillance.'

While Liberal Party legislator Miriam Lau Kin-yee, who was the chairwoman of the bills committee which discussed the bill for more than 100 hours, would not support Ms Ng's amendment, she did ask the security secretary to set out more clearly the exceptional circumstances under which members of the legal profession could be monitored.

'I hope the secretary for security will follow up on this to allay the worries of the legal profession and boost public confidence,' Ms Lau said.

As expected, Ms Ng's amendment was voted down, as were all the amendments put forward by the Democrats and their allies throughout the four-day debate at Legco.

All the government's amendments were passed last night before the final vote on the bill.