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City’s barristers want Bar Association to ‘step up to the plate’ on constitutional matters, says one of its new leaders

Legal scholar Johannes Chan gives assurance that legal body will not be politicised and will continue its ‘professional relationship’ with Beijing

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 January, 2018, 12:49pm
UPDATED : Friday, 19 January, 2018, 3:10pm

A historic turnout for the Hong Kong Bar Association election – with eight in 10 of the city’s practising barristers casting a vote – and its outcome reflected expectations that the legal body would “step up to the plate” on constitutional matters, one of its new leaders said on Friday.

Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun also hit back at criticism that the association’s work might be politicised as members of its 20-strong council, which governs the association, had previously represented activists or political figures in court.

In a Facebook post on Friday, barrister Ronny Tong Ka-wah, a member of the executive council that advises the city’s chief executive, said the results were expected.

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He pointed out that the association’s new chairman Philip Dykes and other council members had been involved in defending “certain political groups” in a number of litigation cases.

A former chairman of the association, Tong added that he hoped the Bar Council would “steer clear of conflict of interest concerns when addressing all these sensitive political issues”.

Dykes defended two former lawmakers when the government took them to court over improper oath-taking.

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Four of the five newly elected members of the council, including Chan, had previously represented other disqualified lawmakers and activists, including those involved in the 2014 Occupy protests for greater democracy. One of the four, Lawrence Lok Ying-kam, had also defended a policeman accused of assaulting an activist during the same protests.

On a radio programme on Friday, just hours after the election results were announced, Chan said barristers were independent and professional – and these qualities were the “ABCs”, or basics, of practising law.

“Barristers by profession are hired to legally represent and defend their clients, but it doesn’t mean that they agree with their stance or their interests,” Chan said.

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“One day barristers could be representing defendants; on another day, the plaintiffs. That is why barristers’ professionalism and independence is needed … I don’t see how representing some people with political background could be seen as having any conflict of interest.”

Some 80 per cent of 1,400 practising barristers cast their vote in Thursday night’s election. More than 400 voted in person at the meeting held in Central – also an unprecedented turnout – while the rest cast proxy ballots.

Dykes unseated incumbent Paul Lam Ting-kwok by about 100 votes after campaigning for the influential body of barristers to be more active in protecting the city’s rule of law.

Chan said he did not view the results as a reflection of Lam’s capability but rather a sign of what members wanted.

The association has the responsibility to defend the rule of law and judicial independence, and when the need arises, we have to voice out matters fearlessly and let [Hong Kong people] understand where the problems lie
Johannes Chan

“I don’t think that the results meant that Paul Lam was performing badly [as chair]; the voting results were quite even,” he said.

“But one thing that led to this election were the members’ expectations that the association would be able to step up to the plate on constitutional matters.

“The association has the responsibility to defend the rule of law and judicial independence, and when the need arises, we have to voice out on matters fearlessly and let [Hong Kong people] understand where the problems lie.”

The Bar Association, led by Lam, came under fire for not questioning more strongly the legality of the controversial joint checkpoint plan for Hong Kong’s express rail link to mainland China.

Under the plan, endorsed by China’s top legislative body last month, mainland officials would be allowed almost full jurisdiction over part of the West Kowloon ­terminus leased to them.

Lam and his team issued a three-paragraph statement in October and last month put out a strongly worded statement saying that the move was the most retrograde step since the city’s return to China in 1997, with the city’s mini-constitution being “irreparably breached” and the rule of law “severely” undermined.

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Critics said it was a case of too little too late, with Dykes suggesting that the association took too long to make its case. He and his allies had posted a statement a day earlier, saying they did not oppose the rail link but it had to be done in accordance with the Basic Law.

On whether the leadership change would affect relations with Beijing, Chan said there was no need to worry.

“The association has always maintained a professional relationship with Beijing. It represents barristers as a whole, and not individuals, so I don’t see how there would be any change ... No matter who takes the helm, it would not affect our communication [with Beijing],” Chan said.

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Chan added that the association’s professional exchanges and tours to Beijing had been going on for several decades, and he saw no reason for those to come to a halt.

He added that he would consider bringing up the topic of the association’s views towards the controversial joint checkpoint plan during their official visits to Beijing, and would fight for more opportunities for direct communication with authorities.