When Michael Vidler moved to Hong Kong from his native Britain in the early 1990s, it was inevitable that he would encounter differences between the two societies. What he didn't expect to find was the appalling, sometimes abusive, way female domestic workers were treated. The solicitor read in amazement a sign instructing domestic helpers to use service lifts, but nothing prepared him for one of his earliest pro bono cases. His client, Filipino maid Achacoso Warly Cabaneros, was left permanently scarred after her employer branded her hands with a hot iron in 2000. 'I saw the client pretty soon afterwards. Just looking at her hands, it was horrific. I was pretty annoyed at the initial reaction of the police,' Mr Vidler said, adding he had to persuade them to take the case seriously. In the years since that shocking case helped expose the abuse of domestic helpers, the solicitor has represented a wide range of clients, from a democracy activist who ran onto Sha Tin racetrack dressed in a horse suit to a burglar who stole toy animals to comfort his three-year-old daughter. But Ms Cabaneros' case has stayed with him over the years. Mr Vidler said the case, in which Ms Cabaneros' female employer was found guilty of inflicting grievous bodily harm and jailed for 18 months, changed the mindset of many local people towards domestic helpers. 'That really epitomised for me the attitude that they could be treated like cattle,' he said. After more than a decade in Hong Kong, Mr Vidler has made a name for himself by often forgoing the big money of corporate law for the chance to represent the underdog. With strong political views and a belief in people's right to justice, he has become a key player on Hong Kong's legal scene, a thorn in the government's side and the toast of human rights groups. The son of a dentist and a teacher, he grew up near the town of Bedford, close to Cambridge. He had a liberal upbringing in which the seeds of political engagement were planted early on. He found studying politics at university failed to challenge him sufficiently and dropped the subject in favour of law. He had always known he wanted to do defence work, a desire that was perhaps fostered by the events of his era. 'This was a time when people were obtaining confessions by putting plastic bags over people's heads,' Mr Vidler said, recalling the trials of the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six. In both cases, people were wrongly convicted for links to terrorist bombings and imprisoned for years before it was discovered police had fabricated evidence. Mr Vidler was practising criminal and family law at a large firm in London's East End when he decided to take a break in 1992 and explore Asia. Little did he know then that his life was about to change. During a stopover in Hong Kong Mr Vidler was offered a job. He took it. Later, he began practising as a human rights and immigration law consultant for another firm before opening Vidler and Co three years ago. In perhaps his highest-profile case to date, Mr Vidler was the solicitor behind William Leung's fight to overturn a law prohibiting men under the age of 21 from engaging in gay sex. Under the law, which Mr Vidler describes as 'outrageous', anal sex with a man under the age of 21 was punishable with life imprisonment. 'Just to think that a decent, law-abiding person could be sent to prison for life for having a loving relationship is horrendous, I think, in anybody's book. Gay, straight, I think anyone with an ounce of compassion would be horrified by that,' he said. In 2005, Mr Justice Michael Hartmann agreed with the assertion that the law discriminated against gay men because it prohibited homosexual sex until a man was 21, compared with 16 for heterosexuals and lesbians. Mr Vidler was certain the case would succeed from the start. His confidence never wavered despite the government launching an appeal (which was unanimously rejected last September). 'There are some cases where you think it's so wrong that it has to go your way in the end,' he said. Mr Vidler, 43, believes that the courts play an invaluable role in protecting people's rights in places such as Hong Kong where citizens do not live in a democracy. 'How else does the little guy seek recourse? You can't vote out the people who make the decisions,' he said. 'The only protection you have at the moment is through the courts. I think the government should embrace that sort of criticism because if you don't have criticism you don't know how badly you're doing.' Despite the courtroom victory, Mr Vidler remains incensed that months after the final ruling the government has yet to change the legislation outlawing homosexual sex for men under 21. 'Every day that they're not repealing [the law] really is a slap in the face of the courts and Hong Kong people. What message does that send out until that law is repealed?' He is also angry that under the present laws, people can be fired from their jobs and turned down when they try to open a bank account, based on someone's prejudice against their sexual orientation. 'There's no law that prevents people from doing that. That's mind-boggling, considering we're in 2007,' he said. While Mr Vidler has notched up some impressive moral victories, he has also represented defendants charged with murder, drug trafficking and child pornography. 'I have no difficulty in representing people where the evidence appears to be strong against them,' he said. 'It's always nice to fight someone's case thinking 'I believe they're innocent'. But if I have my doubts, I would be unprofessional if I didn't work with the same amount of effort to see that they get a fair trial. I'm not the judge and jury and it's not my job to judge.' Another difficulty he says accused people face is that members of the public often judge them on the basis of the allegations against them rather than the evidence, especially when the offences draw strong moral condemnation such as allegations of rape. Mr Vidler, who has also represented rape victims in civil claims, said he was dealing with a case that would 'send shivers down the spine of any man'. 'My client is one of those whom I truly believe is innocent but his life and career will be destroyed if the matter becomes public, irrespective of the end result. This case has reminded me of the reason why I became a lawyer.' As a member of the Law Society's criminal law and procedure committee, Mr Vidler has recently been involved in the fight for better pay for legal aid practitioners. He said they commonly earned half of what they could earn in private practice for the first day of a case and were not paid for pre-trial work. After the first day in court, he said, they earned about a quarter of market rates. After years of lobbying, the government has agreed to increase their pay, but it has yet to reveal the new rates. Mr Vidler expects more battles ahead. 'We need a commitment from them that it's not just going to be a matter of cutting the cake up in different squares. There's got to be a wholesale review of legal aid,' he said. Mr Vidler is also doing his best to shatter the stereotype of the money-hungry, parasitic lawyer who feeds off the misfortunes of others. In a city that is infamous for its materialism, it is a fight in which he wishes he had more allies. He despairs over the shortage of law firms prepared to do pro bono work and contrasts Hong Kong with London, where big firms squabble over pro bono cases in order to win awards and attract quality staff. 'The big firms here just don't do that, which is disgraceful, really.' Mr Vidler is a well-respected figure among his colleagues in the legal profession, although he may still have some way to go in convincing them of the need to give something back. Hong Kong Law Society president Peter Lo Chi-Lik described Mr Vidler as a sincere solicitor with a 'fine and lively legal mind'. Mr Lo said it was good for people to see lawyers playing an active role on important issues but he said access to the law should not depend on lawyers doing pro bono work. 'As a general principle anyone who needs a lawyer should be able to find one ... I don't think lawyers should work for nothing,' he said. But director of Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor, Law Yuk-kai, said society needed more legal practitioners like Mr Vidler. 'He is one of those people in the legal profession who really cares.' Mr Law said Mr Vidler's quiet contribution to the legal process was crucial to the protection of human rights. 'Human rights are nothing unless they can be enforced in a court of law, and enforcement is too difficult for most individuals. Lawyers are an almost indispensable part of this legal process.' With a finely tuned political antenna, Mr Vidler has taken his passion for making a difference out of the courtroom. As an executive council member of Amnesty, a member of Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor and a former board member of Aids Concern, he has continued to boost his human rights credentials and doesn't pull any punches when it comes to criticising the city's political elite. 'I think Hong Kong desperately needs quality politicians, people who are dedicated to making a difference, whatever their political stance, rather than people who treat Legco as a glorified gentleman's club with a Central car park. The quality of debate that you read is pitifully low,' he said. As an outspoken advocate of people's rights, Mr Vidler seems to fit his own criteria for the type of politicians he says Hong Kong needs. But he won't be drawn on the question of whether a political career beckons. 'As it stands at the moment I'm fully engaged in the law,' he said. However, Mr Vidler says he would welcome the opportunity for more westerners to get involved in politics. He said there didn't seem to be many parties welcoming expatriates, but that it was refreshing to see the pan-democratic parties field some expat candidates in the last chief executive committee election. 'Just because we weren't actually born here and aren't of Chinese descent doesn't mean to say this is not our home and that this is something we don't care about.' Mr Vidler is committed to the idea of Hong Kong gaining universal suffrage, and believes the government has to take the view that opposition to its position is healthy. 'It was a shock to me that Hong Kong was not a democracy when I arrived in 1992 and it was inconceivable to think it would still not be a democracy in 2007,' he said. Sitting in his modest Wan Chai office, Mr Vidler admits he sometimes looks longingly at the big dollars on offer in the corporate world. But he is satisfied with the fact his work has the potential to make a difference. 'Hong Kong's home. That's why I feel as though I want to make it a better place.'