Relax ban on barristers' adverts, judiciary urges

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 February, 2008, 12:00am

The judiciary has urged the Bar Association to seriously consider relaxing the ban on barristers' advertising to enable public access to information on their expertise and fees.

The call was echoed by welfare groups supporting potential litigants, who said that apart from the recommendation of solicitors, they had no objective basis to rely on when choosing counsel to act for them.

'The judiciary's position is that as there is plainly a public interest in encouraging reasonable trans- parency in the legal services market, the question of the relaxation of the barristers' advertising merits serious consideration by the Bar,' its spokesman said.

The spokesman reiterated the speech by Chief Justice Andrew Li Kwok-nang at the opening of the legal year in 2003. Mr Justice Li had said it was unfortunate that a number of attempts made by successive forward-looking bar councils - the governing body of the association - to revise the advertising rules were unsuccessful.

'This is disappointing ... It is my duty to remind all concerned that the Bar as a profession has the important responsibility to review and revise its rules and practices from time to time to ensure that they continue to be justified in the public interest,' Mr Justice Li said in the speech.

Given the failure of the Bar in effecting the change at that time, he said his working party on civil justice reform would have to consider whether to achieve the goal by recommending legislation.

The consultation report issued by the working party in 2001 stated: 'The [legal services] market operates on the basis of very unevenly distributed and imperfect consumer knowledge of what any particular piece of litigation is going to cost and as to whether a better bargain may be offered by other lawyers.'

Under the Bar's code of conduct, barristers are not allowed to promote their practices. Normally, litigants cannot approach barristers directly but have to go through solicitors.

The judiciary's call came after the South China Morning Post reported on Friday that Bar chairman Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung and his council were setting up a special committee to study the constitutionality of the advert ban. The move followed a Court of Appeal ruling last month that a similar rule imposed by the Medical Council on doctors had breached freedom of expression.

Barrister Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee, who chairs the Legislative Council's legal panel, said she supported the Bar's decision to have another serious look at the matter. 'I hope the majority of counsel will support the reform this time. Forcing the change by legislation would be the worst strategy to achieve the end,' she said.

Director of rights group Unison Hong Kong, Fermi Wong Wai-fun, who often has to help ethnic minority teenagers arrested for assaulting police officers, welcomed the Bar's move. She said she could only phone barristers randomly, without any information to rely on.

'Sometimes, it's all about luck. Most of the barristers told us they were capable of taking any type of cases. In some cases, we only realised their expertise did not lie in the area we hired them for when it was too late to change counsel,' she said.

Ho Hei-wah, director of the Society for Community Organisation, said a change would give opportunities to new barristers, who were by no means less capable than their seniors.