Hong Kong barristers face growing call for compulsory continuing education

Critics say compulsory continuing education for top lawyers is needed to keep up with world standards and other professions in Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 March, 2013, 5:30am

Hong Kong barristers are under mounting pressure to introduce compulsory continuing education to meet world standards and fall in line with other professions, including solicitors.

Critics say education is needed to ensure barristers maintain their skills and keep up with legal developments.

Bar Association chairman Paul Shieh Wing-tai SC says the association will study the need for compulsory continuing professional development (CPD) but it has yet to reach a conclusion.

Like doctors, accountants and insurers, local solicitors have been obliged to do CPD courses (since 2003).

University of Hong Kong law professor Simon Young Ngai-man says the bar should set up a committee to study the issue and deliberate on how best to deliver CPD courses.

"It's not even a question of whether to do it but how best to organise efforts and funds to deliver continuing education to its members," he said.

Barristers are among the few groups of professionals in Hong Kong who are not required to undertake continuing education, which is the norm for peers in many countries including Britain, Canada and Australia.

The issue was brought into focus this month when a magistrate criticised a barrister for a serious mistake.

In passing sentence on March 6 on a repairman involved in a fatal building collapse in To Kwa Wan three years ago, Magistrate Abu Bakar bin Wahab criticised the defence counsel hired through the duty lawyer scheme for having mistakenly invited an expert witness to give evidence based on hearsay.

Young, who has been a solicitor and a barrister, says the Bar Association's practice of organising ad hoc talks by overseas lawyers and scholars visiting Hong Kong needs to change.

"There has been such rapid development in Hong Kong law in recent years that one cannot assume that one is on top of the law," said Young, who also directs the university's Centre for Comparative and Public Law.

Director of Public Prosecutions Kevin Zervos shares this view. "The law is changing all the time. It is getting more complicated and more difficult," he said.

"It is therefore important that counsel are up to date with the latest changes in the law, as well as maintaining and improving upon their advocacy skills, which is something you should constantly remind yourself about."

Academy of Medicine president Dr Donald Li Kwok-tung agrees that all professionals including barristers should undergo continuing education.

"CPD is not only about technical training, it is also about how you improve yourself in an all-round prospective to keep pace with the expectations of service users," Li said.

Young says there are many reasons the Bar Association should get up to speed on the issue. "The increasing number of UK silks and judges coming through our courts, together with Australian and New Zealand judges means that to master the law now requires one to master the law of at least four common law jurisdictions," Young said.

But Shieh says local barristers have earned a good reputation worldwide. "The Hong Kong Bar enjoys a well earned reputation for the competence and quality of its members. That applies locally and internationally."