Hong Kong's law graduates deserve fair chance to enter profession
John Chan says having overseas lawyers practise in Hong Kong benefits the city, but local graduates must be given the same chances
Every April, the Law Society opens application to overseas lawyers who wish to sit the qualifying examination to become solicitors in Hong Kong. The society held its first Overseas Lawyers Qualifying Examination in 1995. Between 1996 and 2013, Hong Kong saw a total of 8,073 newly admitted solicitors. Among them, 1,672 - or about one in five - were overseas lawyers.
Take the figures from just 2009 to 2013, and the proportion of foreign solicitors becomes more than one in four.
It is generally accepted that having lawyers from diverse backgrounds benefits the legal profession as well as the economy of Hong Kong. Overseas lawyers contribute by bringing not just their talent, but also their clients. So while Hong Kong welcomes overseas lawyers, we should ask if local law graduates are given a similarly fair chance of entering the profession.
Currently, local Bachelor of Laws graduates who trained in local or foreign universities and graduates of the Juris Doctor programme can practise as solicitors or barristers only if they successfully complete a one-year Postgraduate Certificate in Laws (PCLL) programme offered at three local universities.
Many more law graduates apply than are accepted. For the three academic years up to 2013, the average acceptance rate was less than 45 per cent. In other words, every year, 1,200 to 1,500 law graduates compete for fewer than 700 PCLL places.
Compare this situation with that in England and Wales, where 27 institutions are offering more than 10,600 Legal Practice Course places to law graduates who wish to become solicitors and 12 institutions are offering over 2,200 Bar Practising Training Course places to law graduates who wish to become barristers. The number of those who took up these courses was substantially fewer than the places offered.
The small and grossly inadequate number of available PCLL places offered has in the past invited much criticism from law students and lawyers, and a stern question raised by Abraham Razack in a Legislative Council sitting in 2013.
The cap in places limits the number of local law graduates who can go on to practise. By contrast, no such ceiling exists for overseas lawyers seeking to sit the qualification exam. Why do we have our door wide open to lawyers from overseas, yet turn away so many of our own graduates?
To address the issue, the Law Society once suggested having a unified solicitors qualifying examination for all law graduates. The three universities and the government turned a cold shoulder to the Law Society's initiative.
When Hong Kong was still a British colony, law graduates could sit and pass the England and Wales Common Professional Examination to enter the legal profession, as an alternative to taking the PCLL. After 1997, no mechanism similar to the pre-1997 exam was put in place. This leaves the three local universities holding the only key to determine who should and who should not become lawyers.
The thousands of law graduates who were denied PCLL places over the years asked not for favour but merely a fair chance to be assessed in an examination open to all.
John Chan is a practising solicitor and a founding member of the Democratic Party