First lawyers to go head to head with barristers
15 win the right to represent clients in higher courts, with 105 waiting in wings
Only one in six solicitors have been granted direct permission to represent their clients in the higher courts instead of a barrister.
The remaining 75 out of 90 applicants will need to undergo an assessment to qualify for the right of audience in the Court of First Instance, Court of Appeal and Court of Final Appeal.
Only 11 of the 72 applicants asking to conduct civil proceedings without having to undergo an assessment first were successful; and just two of the five applying for criminal proceedings were successful.
Finally, 13 applied to conduct both civil and criminal proceedings, with two accepted for civil proceedings only, according to the Higher Rights Assessment Board.
Another 30 solicitors who did not seek exemption from the assessment are waiting to be evaluated, according to the board. The assessments are scheduled for about April or May,
Law Society president Dieter Yih Lai-tak described the 15 solicitors granted exemption as "a good start" .
He admitted that, with a small pool of only 15 solicitors allowed to act as barristers, consumers may not see an immediate benefit. But he believed the successful exemptions had sent an "encouraging message" to more solicitors to apply for the rights.
The society's vice-president, Stephen Hung Wan-shun, said the exemption rate was not low considering that the advocacy skill of the solicitors had to be judged as on a par with that of barristers. He added some of the 15 had a very strong advocacy background, practising as barristers overseas.
Hung said the fact just two lawyers were accepted as criminal practitioners was to be expected as "solicitors don't have any experience in jury trial in the High Court".
Gary Seib and Kareena Teh were among the chosen 15. Seib, head of Baker & McKenzie's Global Dispute Resolution Practice Group, believed that despite the new rules there would continue to be a separate Bar. However, he believed there would be an impact on barristers' prices.
Teh, also from Baker & McKenzie, said having higher rights of audience will bring significant cost benefits to clients as they will no longer need to seek separate counsel for their litigation cases, while solicitors could offer a much more "coherent and holistic service".
Applicants for an exemption form assessment should have at least three years' experience in litigation work.
But the board did not have further information about the seniority of the applicants.
The Consumer Council welcomed the first solicitors to be granted rights of audience in the higher courts.
It added: "We expect the number of solicitors to increase with the passage of time, and consumers would get more choices."