Role for laymen in legal bodies urged

LAY members should be allowed to sit on the governing bodies of the Law Society and the Bar Association to increase public trust and confidence in them, the Hong Kong Institute of Company Secretaries has recommended.

Chief Executive John Brewer said the institute believed the two councils should take on non-members in the same way non-executives sit on listed company boards.

'The most effective way of understanding client care issues is to involve, and listen to, clients in the process,' he said.

The institute, with 2,800 members, submitted its views on the Consultation Paper on Legal Services to the Government last week.

In its submission, the institute said the legal profession's accountability would always remain in question unless it demonstrated a willingness to show transparency.

'It is not without parallel,' he said, citing the council of Hong Kong Society of Accountants as one of the professional governing bodies with lay members.

The institute said some law firms added surcharges to out-of-pocket expenses and photocopying charges were set at official rates which were 'computed on the basis of amortising a firm's equipment over a very short time-frame'.

These practices 'suggest the governance of the legal profession should include an element of peer review, or lay members, on its councils'.

It also backed a government proposal to establish a statutory fidelity fund, financed by a levy on solicitors, to protect consumers from the dishonesty of solicitors or their employees.

But the institute attacked the fixed fees for conveyancing and probate work as contravening free market principles and reflecting 'the restrictive practices of England's mediaeval guilds'.

'We feel it is imperative that current efforts be accompanied by a clear deadline and desired target for improvement on the part of the administration,' it said.

The consultation period has been extended to the end of next month. So far, the Legal Department has received 34 submissions.