Hong Kong's barristers are bracing for a more competitive legal sector in which many solicitors will have the right to take cases to the High Court, the new leader of the Bar Association says.
Paul Shieh Wing-tai SC told the South China Morning Post recently that he is considering various options - such as compulsory continuing legal education for barristers - to meet the new competition.
The new right, for properly qualified solicitors, was approved two years ago and may come into use as early as April. The high courts have long been the exclusive domain of barristers.
"Barristers are facing many challenges these days, one of which is the solicitors' higher right of audience," Shieh said.
"It goes beyond the issues of simply whether they should wear a wig or have new titles equivalent to those of senior counsels [barristers]. The solicitors' right of audience is a bigger issue."
Shieh was speaking in his first media interview since taking the helm of the 1,100-member professional body on January 18.
"As barristers, one of our challenges is how to improve ourselves to further sharpen our distinctive edge.
"Should the Bar Association consider introducing compulsory CPD [continuing professional development]? I don't have a stance at this moment. However, this may be an area we [the association] should explore and study," Shieh said.
It is not clear how many lawsuits solicitors will take to the High Court and the Court of Final Appeal, Shieh said. Barristers have the edge in handling long, complicated trials, he said, because they can afford the time and effort to concentrate on a handful of cases. Solicitors are usually overwhelmed with day-to-day contact with clients.
"Even so, we cannot be complacent," he said.
The right of audience was likely to create more competition for junior and middle-ranking barristers who rely heavily on short trials in the High Court, Shieh said. "Therefore we have to make the public understand clearly the differences between barristers and solicitor-advocates who have the higher right of audience."
In the new era of competition, Shieh wants the public to understand that all barristers abide by the so-called cab-rank rule, which obliges them to accept any work in a field in which they profess themselves competent to practise. Like taxi cabs in a rank, they must take the first client who comes along.
This means they exercise their profession "independently", with "minimal affiliation with any business interests", Shieh said. "We can proudly say we would not turn down an ordinary litigant and selectively represent major business interests.
"At the same time, no major business interests would refuse a barrister who has previously represented an individual litigant against big business enterprises.
"So parties, regardless of their background, can come to us without any worries of whether a barrister would turn down their cases," he said.