Published: 02:02, February 26, 2021 | Updated: 00:32, June 5, 2023
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Paul Harris poses existential threat to the Bar Association as chairman
By Tony Kwok

The Hong Kong Bar Association has clearly crossed the ultimate red line this time and serious questions must be asked regarding its future role in our society.

I am referring to their election of the new chairman, Paul Harris, who has immediately caused a political storm in his inaugural media interview, in which he openly declared that he would campaign for amending the National Security Law (NSL) to better protect human rights. This was despite the NSL already clearly stating in Article 4 that the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights shall be protected in accordance with the law. He should also be aware that the NSL was promulgated by the National People’s Congress, China’s supreme legal authority, which the latest judgment of the Court of Final Appeal on the bail application of Jimmy Lai Chee-ying agreed should not be challenged. His disrespectful and irrational challenge to the highest judicial authority of the Hong Kong SAR’s sovereign has immediately drawn severe criticism from the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the State Council as well as the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in Hong Kong. This in itself should have prompted the Bar Council to relieve Harris of his chairmanship. But they failed to do the right thing and tried to dismiss it by flummoxing the public by issuing a lame excuse by declaring that Harris was merely giving his personal opinion, even though he was speaking at the time in his capacity as the new chairman of the Bar.

As if this was not enough, the media has since discovered that Harris had in fact served as a city councilor of Oxford in the United Kingdom for over two years and had only tendered his resignation upon being elected as the Bar chairman. He is also an active member of a major UK political party, the Liberal Democrats, which is known to have adopted an anti-China stance and been supportive of the violent rioters who ravaged Hong Kong for more than half a year in 2019. According to media reports, Harris is also the founding chairman and co-founder with Philip Dykes, the former Bar chairman, and Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun in setting up the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor, which has so far received over HK$15 million (US$1.9 million) in funding support from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) fund. According to US official records, the fund provision is to “enable mobilization of activists in Hong Kong, and to help organize public protests”! The NED is known to have been set up by the Central Intelligence Agency of the US government with the purpose of overthrowing incompliant foreign governments. Harris was once acting as the legal representative of the Falun Gong, which was labelled a subversive organization by the central government. In 2003, he published an article in the UK Financial Times, promoting “Tibet Self Rule”, which is just a euphemism for Tibet independence! Harris also published on his Twitter account on June 2 comments inciting Hong Kong independence, claiming that Hong Kong people have the right to say so!

It is therefore not surprising that his nomination as Bar chairman came from Martin Lee Chu-ming, a leading opposition figure in Hong Kong. His background should make him a natural target for the national security branch of the Hong Kong police!  

No doubt there are many patriotic and sensible elements in the association. It is high time for them to speak up, or form a separate association to do the right thing. Otherwise, they might be dragged down with the inevitable downfall of the association they were once so proud of

A city councilor is a relatively junior politician in the UK, probably equivalent to our district councilor. It’s a disgrace and beyond comprehension for the Bar to enable such a junior foreign politician with clear secessionist motives against China to head the Bar. As pointed out by Mr Leung Chun-ying, the former chief executive, in his open letter calling for Harris’ resignation, Harris’ political background, ipso facto, renders him most unsuitable to be the Bar chairman. His loyalty to Hong Kong must also be questioned. 

Thus, if the Bar Council has the association’s best long-term interest at heart, it must take immediate action to negate Harris’ chairmanship, or suffer the consequences.

One likely outcome is that the government will take steps to nullify the association’s legal status. It currently is empowered to perform three important functions. Firstly, it has the authority to issue licenses to barristers to practice; secondly, the right to sanction or disqualify any member for breach of discipline and; thirdly, as ex-official member of the high-powered Judicial Officers Recommendation Commission. These are all very consequential powers and should not be subject to abuse or manipulation by foreign subversive elements. Thus, it makes sense to break up this concentration of power by creating alternative bodies to take over the Bar Association’s three major public functions.  We may examine precedents in other common law jurisdictions overseas for guidance. We can emulate Australia by setting up an independent Legal Practice Board to be responsible for the granting of license to practice as barristers and at the same time appoint a Legal Service Commissioner to deal with the disciplinary aspects of barristers. 

Another option is to merge the Bar Association and the Law Society. It is clearly in the best public interest to eliminate the current ridiculous practice of double-paying two or even three lawyers in just one court case. Hong Kong is one of the few remaining exceptions in former British colonies to carry on this antiquated wasteful practice. Countries like Singapore and Malaysia have long combined the two legal professional streams.  

A temporary option is to immediately list all members of the Bar Council as “public office holders” as per Article 6 of the NSL, thereby requiring each of them to make a declaration to uphold the Basic Law and to swear allegiance to the SAR. All their appointments should be politically vetted and approved by the secretary for security.

As barristers are an important component of the rule of law system in Hong Kong, they should be expected to be conversant with the Chinese constitutional law and the Basic Law. In the future, all members of the Bar Association would have to pass a written test on these subjects before being considered to be admitted to the Bar. The written examination can follow the template of the driving license written test, with questions randomly selected through a computer, as the objective is not to cause an undue barrier to the bar but simply to ensure that they have the basic knowledge of the Chinese constitutional law and the Basic Law, which is central to the rule of law in the Hong Kong context.

The Bar Association should know that the association is registered under the Societies Ordinance, thus the secretary for security has the authority to order it to cease operation on national security grounds as per Section 8 of the ordinance. So, the Bar Council should act expeditiously in this regard.

These so-called human rights barristers are known to have been ripping off huge sums of public funds in charging exorbitant legal fees in acting as legal aid counsels in judicial review and criminal defense cases relating to the social unrest. The Legal Aid Department should revise their legal aid policy by fixing a set rate for all legal aid cases, such as a fixed daily fee of HK$3,000 for all counsels, irrespective of their seniority or experience. If these counsels genuinely want to fight for human rights for Hong Kong citizens, they should not really mind taking up the job on standard fees.

Finally, the public is getting tired of seeing barristers carrying on their archaic practice of wearing wigs in court, which the chief justice can discontinue by simply revising the dress code in the courts. This would immediately stamp out such ludicrous anachronistic practice, if not some of the wearers’ arrogance.

No doubt there are many patriotic and sensible elements in the association. It is high time for them to speak up, or form a separate association to do the right thing. Otherwise, they might be dragged down with the inevitable downfall of the association they were once so proud of!

As pointed out by Xia Baolong, head of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, in his historic speech on Monday, no public office can fall into the hands of people who oppose China and stir trouble in Hong Kong! On that basis, Harris must go!

The author is an adjunct professor of HKU Space and council member of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.