ENGLISH lawyers are cheaper than their Hong Kong counterparts. Therefore they should not be allowed to handle cases here if there is a local lawyer willing to be paid more for the privilege. Tell that to low-paid, underemployed workers protesting at imports of cheap labour. What a reference for the skills of the Hong Kong legal profession. What a curious argument for a territory which prides itself on its free-trading principles. Yet it is precisely such protectionist thinking which underlies the decision of the Chief Justice, Sir Ti Liang Yang, not to allow Ng Kam-chuen to employ an overseas barrister to represent him, even though it would have saved him money. Hong Kong legal fees are high by any standards. It is, of course, not unheard of for the very top silks in other jurisdictions to charge $50,000 a day or more. But here such fees are the norm. The Bar Association claims the territory's lawyers are only responding to market forces. If free competition (including overseas competition) applied, the same forces would drive Hong Kong fees sharply downwards. And local lawyers would be compelled to hone their skills to survive. A man on a murder charge is entitled to the best lawyers he can afford. In enlightened jurisdictions that right is guaranteed even to those on legal aid. If the same money will buy better service elsewhere, it is surely irrelevant whether or not it was actually submitted to Sir Ti Liang that Ng could not pay the higher fees charged by local silks. Though such consumerist concepts are anathema to many in Hong Kong's coddled and protected legal profession, the issue here is value for money. Hong Kong is not unique in restricting the right of outside lawyers to plead in its courts. Similar monopoly powers protect the profession in many common law jurisdictions and not all allow as much discretion in letting in outsiders. But Hong Kong shouldbe leading the way in this, not hiding behind the coat-tails of a protectionist system.