Assurances over spy bill fail to reassure lawyers

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 August, 2006, 12:00am

The legal profession remains doubtful that lawyer-client privilege will be respected after the covert surveillance bill becomes law tomorrow, despite officials' attempts to allay fears the measure will be abused.

The Interception of Communications and Surveillance Bill was passed on Sunday to meet today's court-ordered deadline. It includes a provision that lawyers and their clients can be bugged if the lawyers are suspected of criminal activity.

Immediately after the bill is published, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen is expected to appoint, on the recommendation of the chief justice, a panel of three to six judges to authorise surveillance operations and oversee the law's application. This will avoid a legal vacuum in which law enforcement agencies would have no one to authorise operations.

Lawyers are suspicious that the bill may interfere with a privilege guaranteed under the Basic Law that grants clients the right to confidential legal advice.

Philip Dykes, chairman of the Bar Association, said: 'What remains to be seen is, if the judges can authorise interception in relation to lawyers' communication, what is the standard of evidence they will require?'

He said the legal profession would take a 'wait-and-see' approach.

Lawyers suspected of serious crimes - offences that carry a prison sentence of at least three years - or of being threats to public security, can be bugged with the permission of the judges.

Law Society vice-president Junius Ho Kwan-yiu said while there was concern about how the government would balance security and the public's right to privacy, 'much more sensitive is the core value behind the communication between the client and his lawyer, and legal professional privilege'.

'[If] clients are not confident about getting confidential legal advice and effective legal advice from lawyers ... that undermines the entire principle behind legal professional privilege, and this is of great concern to the entire legal profession,' he said.

The government would not say yesterday when the panel of judges would be announced, but a Security Bureau source said the judges would be in place to handle any emergency authorisations immediately after the bill came into effect.

Independent Commission Against Corruption chief Raymond Wong Hung-chiu said the legislation gave law enforcement agencies clearer guidelines for conducting snooping operations.

Customs chief Timothy Tong Hin-ming pledged to apply the rule with caution and self-discipline.