Encountering briefs

IF China adviser Ms Dorothy Liu Yiu-chu is to be believed, China has no plans to get embroiled in the debate between the Bar Association and the Law Society over the latter's proposal to merge the two bodies. The Law Society has argued that unification would make legal services more accessible to the public and bring costs down. It believes that legal fees could be made more cost-effective by getting rid of duplication in lawyers' and barristers' fees. However, the Bar Association is opposed on the groundsthat the present system has served the territory well and there is no need for change, especially so close to 1997. Although the issue has been under debate for several years, the timing of the Law Society's proposal has not gone unnoticed. Some see the planned link as an attempt to weaken the Bar Association which has been outspoken on important issues such as constitutional reform and the validity of contracts that straddle 1997.

As an influential body and a major opinion former, the views of the Bar Council carry considerable weight in the community, especially when its views differ with Beijing. While those of the Law Society carry equal weight, it has chosen to remain silent on these issues. Such silence suggests that were it to succeed with its merger plan, any dilution might affect the outspoken stance of the Bar Association.

So far the Law Society has argued that cost-effectiveness is a prime motive behind the merger plan. It has yet to explain whether the high cost of legal services hinges on lawyers' fees alone, or if the operation of the courts and administrative costs are also factors. Nor has the Law Society satisfactorily explained whether lower costs are necessarily a sole justification for a merger. Cheap can be better, but it can also be nasty.

If fusion is at the risk of a less independent-minded Bar Association, perhaps the debate should be widened to find ways of saving clients' fees without prejudicing the freedom of either body. At a time when it is vitally important that Hongkong ensures the integrity of the legal system is upheld after 1997, the territory's solicitors and barristers should not be reduced to squabbling amongst themselves. To do so would only cast doubts on the conduct of two professional bodies which are still seen as important role models for the community.