The decision to allow solicitors the right to argue their clients' cases in the higher courts has the potential to make access to justice more affordable. The news that lawmakers have finally approved a law giving solicitors these 'rights of audience' is therefore welcome in a city where the costs of litigation can be prohibitively high.
It means that when the law comes into force, people will not necessarily have to hire both a solicitor and a barrister for a case in the higher courts. England and Wales, from where our legal system originates, long ago opened up their higher courts to solicitors. It is more than two years since our chief justice urged the government to adopt the recommendation of a judiciary working party that - subject to safeguards - Hong Kong should follow suit. The reform means the public will have access to a larger pool of courtroom advocates. Barristers will still be hired in many cases where their particular expertise and experience is considered necessary.
The question of higher rights of audience for solicitors has, in the past, sparked heated debate within the legal profession. But fears about the move having serious consequences for barristers' practices have not been borne out in England and Wales. Since solicitors in Hong Kong already act for their clients in the magistrates courts and District Court, and in hearings in chambers in the High Court and Court of Final Appeal, it makes little sense to prevent them addressing judges in higher courts too.
But this must not be at the cost of high standards of legal representation. The judiciary working party rightly emphasised the importance of experience, particularly in courtroom advocacy. It is good, therefore, that eligible solicitors will have to apply to a higher rights assessment board before they can represent clients in the higher courts. Nor must it be at the cost of the independence of the bar. Barristers often tend to be more independent-minded and outspoken on legal issues, especially in defence of the rule of law. Hong Kong still needs that vibrancy. Thankfully there is no evidence that higher rights of advocacy for solicitors will put it at risk.