Paul Shieh: A lawyer raising the bar for Hong Kong justice

The new chairman of the Bar Association Paul Shieh loves soccer, is a keen reader and fan of all movies, not just the courtroom dramas

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 February, 2013, 4:34am

Being a lawyer was never his childhood dream - he would rather have been an engineer. But Paul Shieh Wing-tai became a top barrister and senior counsel and now leads the 1,100-member Bar Association.

"During my teenage years, boys usually studied science and were eager to become engineers or to join any science-related professions, such as building bridges and building computers. I was one of those boys," Shieh said, a month after becoming chairman of the professional body.

"But when the time came to select my major at university, I changed my mind, believing that my mathematics would not be good enough to compete with other university students," Shieh told the South China Morning Post.

"After I decided not to do science, there were not many choices left. I didn't like medicine and didn't want to become a doctor," he said.

Then a student at the elite St Joseph's College on Kennedy Road, Central, Shieh was confident of his debating skills and was impressed by courtroom drama on TV and film.

He eventually decided to pursue a law degree and enrolled at the University of Cambridge law school, from which he graduated in 1987.

"All along I had thought law was a subject only for students whose major was in arts or literature. But I am an example of how a science student can also study law," he said.

Shieh is one of three lawyers representing the commission of inquiry into last year's National Day sea collision between the Lamma IV and the Sea Smooth in which 39 people died.

He also acted in a high-profile business dispute between the founder of the Itamae Sushi chain Ricky Cheng Wai-tao and his business partner Jason Poon Ka-man, representing the latter.

But away from the courtroom, Shieh puts aside his solemn face and allows his brilliant sense of humour to shine.

"With my height [of more than 6 feet], I can be easily identified if anyone wants to take revenge on me," the barrister joked.

In his leisure time, he loves watching soccer and his favourite team is Arsenal. He is also a keen reader and movie-goer, watching films on all topics - not just dramas set in the courtroom.

A Brief History of Time by British physicist Stephen Hawking is one of his favourite reads, even though he confesses that he struggles to understand the scientific theories described in the modern classic.

"I have to be honest with you, I don't fully understand those theories," he said. "But I do enjoy reading the book repeatedly and I find myself understanding more every time I revisit it."

Soon after he became leader of the Bar Association, Shieh vowed he would not follow in the footsteps of an ex-chairman, Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung - now Secretary for Justice - or Law Society president Dieter Yih Lai-tak, by joining the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.

Refusing to be drawn on whether his decision was due to potential conflict of interest between politics and law, the new chairman simply says that "given [his] limited time" he would like to give priority to his duty to the association.

His disassociation from mainland politics was backed by pan-democratic lawyers like Ronny Tong Ka-wah SC and Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee.

In a letter to the Post, Ng said: "The Chairman of the Bar has the unique role of representing the independent Bar in Hong Kong.

"When he or she speaks, there should be no shadow of a doubt what he or she stands for ... the decision of Mr Paul Shieh SC to give priority to the affairs of the Bar while he serves as its chairman is perfectly proper.

"I am confident that it is not only fully supported by members of the Bar, but also respected by the community."

Tong, who has known Shieh for about 20 years through working in the same barristers' chambers, described the new chairman as an "upright person" who has been enthusiastic in the work of the Bar Association ever since he was a junior counsel.

"He is a leader who has the ability to uphold the rule of law and judicial independence for Hong Kong.

"However, these are also the minimum duties that a Bar chairman should be committed to," said Tong, who was chairman between 1999 and 2001.

One criticism of Shieh that Tong does have stems from his failure in 2008 to speak against Rimsky Yuen's acceptance of an appointment as delegate to the Guangdong provincial CPPCC.

Yuen was the association chairman, while Shieh was the deputy head at the time.

"Maybe Paul, as vice-chairman at the time, was too embarrassed to speak against Yuen.

"But I hope he will put aside any personal friendships and speak out against anyone when things go wrong," Tong said.

In an interview with the Post, the new chairman pledged that the association under his leadership would speak out, undaunted, when the rule of law in Hong Kong was under threat.

At the ceremony to launch the new legal year last month, his predecessor, Kumar Ramanathan SC spoke out strongly against the undermining of the judicial system by special interest groups.

He said it was necessary to ensure that judges "can make decisions independent and free from the influence of political winds that may be blowing".

"In my view, we all have to be alert and vigilant to ensure that neither political demagoguery nor special interest groups, be they from whatever quarter, be allowed to undermine the genius of our unique constitutional and judicial system under the umbrella of the 'one country, two systems' principle", Ramanathan said.

A month later, his successor sent out a similar message.

"If we find we have a different understanding about such remarks or government acts, the Bar Association, which has a role in the administration of justice, has a duty to make clear our stance ... we are not necessarily acting against the government.

"However, if the matters involve public interest and concern legal issues, we are uniquely equipped to make our stance clear and speak out," Shieh said.


Paul Shieh Wing-tai

Age 47

Obtained first law degree at the University of Cambridge (Queen’s College, 1984-1987).
Obtained a postgraduate degree at the University of Oxford (Worcester College, 1988-1989).

Admitted to the Bar in 1988. Appointed Senior Counsel in 2003.
Vice-Chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association (2007-2009, 2011-2012).
Chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association (2013).
Member, Law Reform Commission (2006-2012).