Well-known Hong Kong barrister Kevin Egan dies of cancer of the oesophagus, aged 70

Australian who worked as a prosecutor and criminal lawyer was involved in some of the city’s most high-profile cases

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 June, 2018, 4:12pm
UPDATED : Monday, 18 June, 2018, 11:04pm

Kevin Egan, one of Hong Kong’s top criminal barristers, died of cancer of the oesophagus on Sunday night, multiple legal sources have confirmed. He was 70.

The Australian, who handled some of the most famous criminal cases in the city’s history, was remembered as a “wonderful guy” who was always willing to help a friend, and would be missed by members of his profession.

Egan qualified as a barrister in 1972 and later came to Hong Kong and joined the Department of Justice. He swiftly rose to become deputy principal Crown Counsel, and prosecuted numerous cases with the city’s Independent Commission Against Corruption.

After leaving for private practice, he won a series of famous victories against the ICAC, including acquittals for former beauty queen Elsie Chan Yik-zee in a HK$515 million (US$66 million) land fraud case, and for Chen Po-sum, former vice-chairwoman of the stock exchange, against a range of corruption charges.

Egan was again in the spotlight in the case of Tang Lin-ling, a mainland Chinese woman who took photos during hearings related to 2014’s pro-democracy Occupy protests.

Last month, Tang claimed in court she had engaged Egan to represent her. However, Egan turned up to clarify that he only advised her “as a courtesy”, after she reached out for his help during a random lift conversation, and was not representing her.

In a dramatic twist, the woman then rejected Egan’s help later that day.

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“I first met him when he was a robust prosecutor in the legal department,” prominent criminal barrister Cheng Huan SC said. “Many considered him to be a bully, but of course like most of us he mellowed with the passing years.

“After he came out to the private Bar I think he realised that after all, the prosecution does not always have a monopoly on the truth. He was a very successful practitioner in the junior Bar, and was an equally robust defence lawyer.

“He has many friends in the Bar who will miss his style of advocacy.”

Another barrister, Paul Leung, who was Egan’s colleague in the Department of Justice and again in private practice, praised him as someone who was always willing to offer help to friends, and other lawyers.

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Lawmaker James To Kun-sun who, as a summer intern, worked next to Egan’s room in the Department of Justice, shared Leung’s sentiment.

Describing him as a very nice predecessor, To said the case of Tang Lin-ling had illustrated Egan’s willingness to help others, “even some random guys”.

Criminal defence lawyer Jonathan Midgley said: “He was a wonderful character, and a very, very good advocate. It’s very sad to lose him.”

Choy Ki, who served his pupillage with Egan, and then worked alongside him between 2004 and 2010, was left shocked and sadden by the Australian’s death.

The convenor of the Progressive Lawyers Group said he wrote to Egan seeking a chance to be his pupil in 2003.

As a student from the grass roots without connections in the profession, he did not expect the prominent barrister to reply, let alone ask him to a meeting at the High Court.

More surprisingly, Egan asked him when he would be ready to start work after a mere five-minute conversation in a lift.

He was a very easy going person who did not put on airs
Legal professional Choy Ki

“He was a very easy-going person who did not put on airs,” Choy said.

During the pupillage, he said Egan always invited him for breakfast at his home to discuss cases, and to drinks and dinner at the end of long work days.

Describing Egan as the “godfather of his career”, Choy said Egan even allowed him to share his room in chambers at the start, alleviating the burden of paying rent.

Choy, who is now a legal consultant for a private firm, retired as a barrister after 2010, and did not meet Egan as frequently as before.

The pair had exchanged text messages, but Choy did not know about his friend’s health problems.

“That fits his character,” Choy said. “He seldom showed his unhappiness and worries before us.

“He was a tough man. He looked strong, but was tender-hearted.”

Barrister Jane Moir, who got to know Egan when working as a newspaper court reporter in the mid-1990s, and later became his pupil for three months, said he was a Robin Hood-type, who wanted to balance the scales of justice for those who had less.

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“He was meticulous in his case preparation and at court hearings, that side of him could become quite obsessive,” she said.

“Before each hearing session, Kevin [Egan] would line up his pens and eye glasses just so, like some general sliding his soldiers on a mock battlefield. Kevin was always an advocate that you’d want on your side.”

Lawyer Kevin Steele, who worked on many cases with Egan, said he would structure his fees depending on the client and would always take up a cause for an underdog.

Steele said he once gave Egan 18 pages for a bail application and he read them alone for 15 minutes, then entered court and spoke without papers for 20 minutes having memorised all the facts, dates and full details of the case.

Shaphan Marwah, another one of Egan’s old pupils who is now a barrister in his chambers, said Egan gave his time to a number of Hong Kong charities whenever asked.

“He was feared and respected and there are numerous stories of prosecutions being withdrawn when he turned up,” he said.

Sources said Egan had been involved in a criminal case which is expected to begin tomorrow, and other barristers had been contacted to see if any would take it up.

Additional reporting by Alvin Lum