WHEN liberal legislators Martin Lee Chu-ming and Szeto Wah decided to take out a libel suit against a former Appeal Court judge, it was a case that was bound to cause sensation inside Hongkong's tight-knit legal community.
But even before coming to court, the case has posed important question marks over the role of lawyers in the run-up to 1997 and placed the legal profession in the dock.
Today we reveal that at least eight of the territory's top firms of solicitors rejected approaches to take on the case against Simon Li Fook-sean, a leading figure in the Preliminary Working Committee on the Special Administrative Region Preparatory Committee.
According to United Democrats Vice-Chairman Albert Ho Chun-yan, some pointed out the matter was ''politically sensitive''. Still others said they were concerned about the damage to their business interests in China.
The merits or otherwise of the case itself, which revolves around remarks made by Mr Li while he was in Beijing for th e first meeting of the Preliminary Working Committee, are a matter for the courts of Hongkong to decide.
But the difficulties encountered by Mr Lee and Mr Szeto in finding someone to represent them are another matter.
Mr Lee is a Queen's Counsel. If he cannot find a lawyer to take on his case, Hongkong's citizens are entitled to ask: who can? And if the criteria for deciding to accept a case is whether it has ''political sensitivity'', that must surely rank as a real cause for concern. How can any judiciary be expected to protect the rights of citizens against their government if lawyers will not bring such cases before the courts? As for the concern over mainland business interests, it would be difficult today to find even one large legal firm that does not have some connections with China.
Some lawyers will, no doubt, have had perfectly valid reasons for not wishing to take part in this action. Those involved in special relationships with one party or the other, for instance, do not take such cases as a matter of course.
The reaction of Law Society chairman Roderick Woo, however, will hardly bring comfort to members of the public already concerned about the rule of law. ''Obviously, there would be some cases lawyers do not want to take on because there is a political ingredient to them,'' he is quoted as saying. ''But I think there is no cause for worry as the situation on the whole is quite good.'' Instead of such blandishments, the Law Society should investigate why two senior legislators found it so hard to find legal representation. And, if necessary, it should ensure its members are aware of the importance of their role during the next four years - and beyond.