A barrister was sentenced to 3½ years' jail yesterday for what a judge said were "obnoxious" deals to buy into his clients' lawsuits and gain more than HK$1.6 million from their damages payments.
Louie Mui Kwok-keung, 53, made Hong Kong history by becoming the first barrister convicted of the archaic common-law offence known as champerty - the act of one striking an illegal deal with a party in a lawsuit to obtain a share of its proceeds.
The five offences took place between 1999 and 2008, when he persuaded five clients to pay him 25 to 30 per cent of the damages they would receive if they won their claims, or had their cases settled out of court.
District Court Judge Amanda Woodcock said in her ruling: "As a barrister, the defendant's conduct posed a genuine risk to court process." She said that his act amounted to "exploitation" of the laymen involved who had no legal knowledge.
"They paid what they thought was the legal fee," she said.
Woodcock ordered Mui to repay a total of HK$1.5 million to four of his clients by August, saying she was sure that they were not aware of the illegality of the agreements.
She said that the agreements were "pure champerty" and "in a more obnoxious form", because Mui had skirted stated procedures and initially dealt directly with all the five clients without involving a solicitor.
By lending money to some of the worse-off clients Mui, who was called to the bar in 1994, had "kept them sweet and on board", which Woodcock found to be an aggravating factor.
Hong Kong is a rare jurisdiction in retaining champerty as a criminal offence.
But Woodcock, rejecting a mitigation argument, said: "The fact that [champerty] is … no longer an offence in other jurisdictions is not a factor that would attract leniency."
The prosecution said it had found only one available precedent after it had "gone through the whole world", that of local solicitor Winnie Lo Wai-yan, who was given a 15-month sentence on champerty and maintenance.
Her conviction was quashed in the Court of Final Appeal last year.