Bar Association is now a de facto political party

The professional body for barristers, under its new leadership, will be taking a much more active role in the political affairs of Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 January, 2018, 2:51am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 January, 2018, 2:51am

The Bar Association has just had a coup. Breaching a long-standing, unwritten rule of having a chairman stay on the job for two years, Philip Dykes and his like-minded barrister friends have successfully challenged incumbent Paul Lam Ting-kwok.

Four of Dykes’ allies now sit on the board. These include top criminal lawyer Lawrence Lok Ying-kam and University of Hong Kong law professor Johannes Chan Man-mun, who is closely allied with Anson Chan Fang On-sang, the former chief-secretary-turned-pan-democratic icon.

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Under Lam and his predecessor Winnie Tam Wan-chi, the association had been more neutral and nuanced in the way it dealt with political controversies involving the government and Beijing.

Impatient of Lam’s leadership and what he calls its delayed criticism of the joint checkpoint arrangement at the upcoming West Kowloon express rail terminus, Dykes and Co clearly prefer a politically active association. Expect a return to the “good old days” when an activist Bar Association was chaired by such card-carrying pan-democratic politicians as Audrey Eu Yuet-mee, Alan Leong Kah-kit and Ronny Tong Ka-wah; that is, before Tong jumped ship and joined the government.

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Top barrister Cheng Huan has warned against politicising the professional body, saying it should only weigh in on the legal aspects of politically divisive issues and not take sides. But of course, it had been a heavily politicised body since the 1997 handover. The last few years were the exception.

During this most heated election, Lam and his supporters had argued the association should stay independent and not interfere in politics. It was a rebuke of their rivals for politicising the election.

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But those who voted for Dykes clearly wanted an activist and politically engaged association. The new chairman said he only wanted the body to defend the rule of law and that none of his allies belonged to any political party. That may be technically true. But everyone knows where Professor Chan’s political commitments and sympathies lie.

Under Dykes and his allies, we can already guess what the association’s positions would be, not only on the joint checkpoint arrangement but also on a national anthem law and national security law under Article 23 of the Basic Law. Such positions would be virtually indistinguishable from those of the pan-democratic camp, though no doubt argued in more sophisticated legalese. It may be time to stop treating the association merely as a professional body for barristers, but as a de facto political party.