Hong Kong's lawyers must speak out on sensitive issues

Cliff Buddle says the legal community must continue to speak out on sensitive issues, such as the white paper, to help protect the rule of law

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 June, 2014, 12:11pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 June, 2014, 2:46am

Law and politics are not supposed to mix, but it is often difficult to separate one from the other. Over the years, Hong Kong's legal community has played an important role in defending the rule of law and, in doing so, commenting on politically sensitive issues.

Tomorrow, some members of the profession will take part in a rare protest march, the third of its kind since the handover. This time, the march is in support of judicial independence in light of the central government's recent white paper on Hong Kong. The document raised concerns by classifying judges as administrators with a "basic political requirement" to love the country.

The protest gives lawyers a chance to signal their support for the independence of our judges, a hallmark of the "one country, two systems" concept. It will be attended by barristers and solicitors, but their respective professional organisations have reacted very differently to the controversy.

The Bar Association, representing barristers, responded swiftly and sharply to the white paper, issuing a strong statement defending the rule of law and judicial independence. In contrast, Ambrose Lam San-keung, president of the Law Society, representing solicitors, said he saw the white paper as a positive document that reaffirmed the judiciary's independence. His comments have, not surprisingly, sparked a backlash by some solicitors and Lam is now facing a no-confidence motion.

It is not the first time the two bodies have differed. When the Law Society issued a paper on legal aspects of the universal suffrage debate, Lam refused to comment on questions such as whether the public could recommend candidates for election or whether there should be a cap on the number of candidates, saying he did not want to be drawn into a political wrestling match. (The Bar had stated there was no legal impediment to public recommendation.)

Concerns about commenting on political issues have not, however, prevented Lam from condemning the Occupy Central movement, calling on the US to reveal its snooping operations in Hong Kong, or speaking out on Sino-Vietnamese tensions.

There is a perception that solicitors, many of whom work for law firms doing business on the mainland, are reluctant to say anything that might offend the central government, while barristers are more willing to speak out.

But it is dangerous to generalise, as the reaction of some solicitors to Lam's comments on the white paper shows. Not all barristers support the Bar Association's often outspoken stance and not all solicitors agree with the position adopted by the Law Society. I doubt, however, that any would disagree with supporting the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary.

The Bar and Law Society can make a valuable contribution to public debates on sensitive issues that touch on the law. Their expertise and perceived objectivity means their views can carry great weight. They should speak out in defence of our legal system when it appears to be under threat.

After all, if lawyers are not going to stand up for the rule of law, who will?

Cliff Buddle is the Post's editor, special projects