Public to benefit from barristers' adverts

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 January, 2009, 12:00am

The days of the ban on Hong Kong barristers advertising their services were numbered after the Court of Appeal ruled last year that a similar ban on doctors was an unconstitutional curb on free speech. The Bar Association has now sensibly overturned a tradition of barristers shunning self-promotion that goes back hundreds of years.

In previously resisting such a move, the association's members sought to retain the profession's 'gentlemanly' image. They have finally followed the example of their counterparts in England, from where the city derives the common law and its traditions. Barristers in England and Wales have long promoted themselves in glossy brochures.

With the removal of the advertising ban from the association's code of conduct, barristers are now free to publicise their services on television, in newspapers, on the internet or in other media. They may include profile photographs, the nature of the services they offer, their qualifications, significant cases they have handled, the identity of the clients they have represented and their fee scale. The previous ethical constraints have been swept away. But the code of conduct will rightly seek to ensure that advertisements are accurate, and do not mislead or bring the profession into disrepute.

The change is aimed at making barristers more competitive in the modern business environment. It does not mean, however, that they will seek work directly from prospective clients. Solicitors will still brief them on behalf of clients. The independent role and objectivity expected of a barrister will be preserved. But it does mean that solicitors - and the public - can keep abreast of what is available in the market and at what cost.

In that regard the public-interest argument against the ban on doctors advertising can be applied to barristers. Just as patients are entitled to accurate information about a doctor's professional qualifications and experience, clients seeking the services of a barrister should be able to access such information.

It is arguable that the case for barristers to be allowed to advertise is, in some respects, even stronger than that for doctors. We need the services and advice of a barrister much less frequently than those of a doctor. When we do need them there has been until now hardly any information in the public domain about what is available. The public should be able to make informed choices. That includes making decisions about what is affordable - which will be possible now that barristers can advertise their fee scales. Indeed, it has been argued that the increased competition created by advertising will encourage some barristers to lower their fees.

Concerns have been expressed that the move will place less-experienced barristers at a disadvantage. But this need not be the case, especially if they are able to promote themselves as offering good value for money.

The traditions and ethics of the Bar have an important role to play in safeguarding the integrity of the profession. But the end of an outdated taboo will, on balance, benefit the public, provided the new code of conduct ensures that the advertisements are scrupulously accurate and uphold the dignity of the law.