Calls from pro-Beijing figures in Hong Kong to radically reform the territory’s judiciary could spell “the end of the current legal system,” warned the new Bar Association chief.
The proposed changes include forcing judges to consult a new council made up of members of the community before spreading verdicts, a move Paul Harris said could potentially undermine judicial independence in the city.
The proposed counsel would amount to “a powerful body telling judges what to do” and would be “a big step back,” he told the The Washington City Times.
Harris is a human rights specialist and Cantonese speaker and also practices in London where he is a member of Doughty Street Chambers. He was elected head of the Hong Kong Bar Association last month as the city’s legal profession grapples with the profound rule of law implications of broad national security legislation.
The law, introduced last year to deal with widespread protests against the government, punishes loosely defined crimes such as collusion with foreign forces or subversion with life imprisonment.
The law is enforced when the Hong Kong government deals with opposition leaders as well as teachers, the media and non-governmental organizations.
The city’s internationally respected legal system has remained relatively untouched, but some pro-Beijing figures are eager to change.
Harris faced criticism from the Chinese state media and the central government last month after proposing that some provisions of the security law, such as allowing suspects to be brought to the mainland for trial, should be changed.
CY Leung, a former Hong Kong CEO, has called on Harris to resign, while the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, the central government’s supervisory authority for the area, has accused Harris of cooperating with foreign forces.
Some lawyers believe the central government is trying to split up the Bar Association so that its pro-Beijing members can force Harris from his post.
“They are petrified and shocked,” said a lawyer attending a meeting of the organization this month. Members were deeply divided on how to respond to Beijing’s pressure.
“ There’s a debate about when it’s right to stand up for what’s right and when it’s better to keep your head under the parapet, ” said Harris, adding that leading the bar at the moment was like ‘driving a yacht in a storm’.
Harris said he would like to discuss the future of the justice system with Beijing, but there were some issues on which the bar could not compromise. Signs of positive engagement with Beijing were “not encouraging,” he said.
The city’s legal issues have attracted international attention after British lawyer David Perry withdrew from representing the Hong Kong government in a case against prominent pro-democracy figures in the area last month following pressure from the British government.
Those brought to trial included Martin Lee, the lawyer known as the father of democracy in Hong Kong, and Jimmy Lai, the media mogul, over their alleged involvement in anti-government protests in 2019.
Some Westminster MPs have called on the UK Supreme Court to end the practice of allowing UK judges to sit on the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal.
Harris, anxious for Perry to return to Hong Kong, said that would be a mistake. ‘It would have a terrible effect on morale and it would be one of the most disastrous things that could happen to Hong Kong. “