Action on firms urged in Lee case

Linda Choy

THE refusal of law firms to take the libel case of liberal legislators Martin Lee Chu-ming and Szeto Wah against former Appeal Court judge Simon Li Fook-sean would undermine public confidence in the legal profession, according to a leading barrister.

Bar Association chairman Jacqueline Leong QC, said it was very serious for lawyers to refuse such a case without offering a convincing explanation.

The case had affected the public's confidence towards the profession because some law firms had acted inappropriately, and the fact they gave no reason for the refusal made the matter more serious, she said.

She told a forum on the independence of the legal profession that solicitors who refused to take such cases should be disciplined if they failed to offer good reasons.

Miss Leong urged the Law Society of Hong Kong, the professional body for solicitors, to summon such solicitors to find out the reasons for refusing to take the case.

Eighteen law firms declined to take the Lee libel case, some due to conflicts of interest.

''The Law Society should force the law firms to give their reasons for their refusal to accept the case. How can we guarantee that these firms are following the code of practice if they are allowed to keep the reasons in the dark?'' she asked.

However, Law Society chairman Roderick Woo Bun, said solicitors should not be compelled to make public their reasons for refusing certain cases.

Senior law lecturer of the University of Hong Kong, Johannes Chan Man-mun said Hong Kong residents' rights of access to the judicial system should be protected.

Mr Chan said there were provisions in the Bill of Rights and the Basic Law to protect citizens' rights to seek judicial judgment.

The selective acceptance of cases would mean a threat to people's constitutional rights.

Mr Chan suggested solicitors adopted the ''cab rank'' rule, which forbids barristers from turning away cases without good reasons.

The failure to abide by the rule could result in disciplinary action.

Mr Chan also suggested allowing the Bar Association and the Law Society to act like other professional bodies in Hong Kong and appoint their own barristers.

In cases where the plaintiff has been turned down by solicitors' firms, they could then seek the help of the professional bodies.

Mr Chan said it was dangerous for law firms to decide whether to take cases or not.

''By picking their clients selectively, the law firms are actually making the judgment before the case goes to the court,'' he said.

''This incident has reflected a loophole in the local legal system. The barristers are bound by this code [of the cab rank rule] but they have to rely on the solicitors, who are not governed by the same rule, for referrals.'' In his response, Mr Woo quoted overseas cases to show that under the cab rank rule, some solicitors could still decline cases using different excuses.

Solicitors are already under a code of practice which stops them from turning down cases on grounds of race, colour, sex and religion. But political beliefs are not included.