Hong Kong solicitors seek exemption from assessment for new High Court role

Many applying to represent clients in the High Court say they have substantial advocacy skills

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 January, 2013, 4:41am

Solicitors who apply to obtain the right to speak on behalf of clients in the High Court will need to sit an assessment, although those who have "substantial experience" in advocacy may be exempted.

Up to three-quarters of solicitors are seeking such an exemption, according to the Higher Rights Assessment Board. Of 122 applications received by the board by last September, only 32 were prepared to go through an assessment.

While applications for exemptions are still being processed, the Law Society is preparing an intensive training programme for its members after the Lunar New Year, said society president Dieter Yih Lai-tak.

The assessment board, which is chaired by Mr Justice Michael Hartmann, has yet to fix a schedule for assessment.

Society vice-president Stephen Hung Wan-shun said: "We encourage our members to sit the assessment as soon as they have finished the training. We expect the lawyers will be able to exercise their right once they have passed the assessment."

Giving solicitors the right to advocate - or speak on behalf of clients - in the higher courts is more about giving litigants an additional choice to save costs than stealing jobs from barristers, say two solicitor applicants. "It's about providing the clients the services they require. In some cases it is better for the person who has handled the case from the beginning to present the case at the trial at the conclusion," said solicitor Timothy Hill, who has 28 years' experience in civil litigation and arbitration.

In many parts of the world there is no split between solicitors and barristers, Hill said. "In the international arbitration field, clients increasingly question why there is a need to bring an additional person [a barrister] towards the end of the case. While we are working with clients particularly in America, they find the distinction a strange one - one they are not used to."

Chris Dobby, who has practised in company law work for about 14 years, did not think that giving solicitors advocacy rights in the High Court would have a huge impact on barristers, but it would promote constructive competition.

"I don't think it will take a lot of work away from the Bar. Barristers' roles are very important and that will remain," he said.

Hill said solicitors were more likely to get involved in cases that involved short hearings and with lower sums involved, meaning significant cost savings.

On suggestions a review mechanism be put in place to ensure solicitors did not just put the right of advocacy on a letterhead but indeed practised it, Dobby said: "Anything that can be constructively monitored will benefit the clients in the long term. So probably it is a good thing. But … it has to be applied equally because the same can be said about a barrister."