The Hong Kong Bar Association should not deal with or discuss political issues, newly elected president Victor Dawes has said, as the senior lawyer has pledged to protect the city’s rule of law which ‘doesn’t is not dead”.
Hong Kong lawyers elected Dawes on Thursday night to replace top counsel Paul Harris who faced heavy criticism from Beijing during his tenure last year. The former leader was accused of politicizing the professional body, while pro-establishment figures called him a “responsibility” And one “existential threat” to the group.
Speaking to the press after the annual general meeting, Dawes was asked how he would address criticism that the bar association was politicized. In response, the new leader said the group had a duty to speak out on rule of law issues, but rule of law “was not a political concept”.
“The Bar Association is a professional body. On issues related to the rule of law, we have a social responsibility to speak up. But when it comes to politics…those topics shouldn’t be what the Bar Association should be dealing with or discussing,” Dawes said, while standing alongside newly elected senior attorneys Derek Chan and Jose-Antonio Maurellet. vice chiefs. They faced no competition in the elections.
Dawes, who specializes in business litigation and chancery litigation, added that the group will “grasp” the difference between social and political issues over the coming year as there may be areas where the two clash. overlap.
Dawes’ predecessor Harris came under fire from Beijing’s Hong Kong office last year after the then-president criticized the sentencing of veteran Democrats in cases related to protests and pro-democracy unrest in 2019.
The Liaison Office accused Harris of “spreading distorted opinion” and “blatantly supporting those who violated the law.” He told the lawyer to “stop straying from the path of politicization.”
Asked whether the government’s attempt to enact the controversial Article 23 Basic Law legislation was a social or political issue, Dawes said the association would do its best to participate in the drafting process of the bill. and express their point of view on the proposal.
“We will pay close attention to important legal issues like this and speak up at appropriate times,” he said.
Article 23 of the Basic Law stipulates that the Hong Kong government must itself enact laws to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the central government. Its legislation failed in 2003 following mass protests. The government has always had enough votes to pass the law, but it has never been lifted since the 2003 debacle. Democracy advocates fear it will have a negative effect on civil liberties.
The rule of law “is not dead”
Dawes said some members of society have formed a pessimistic view of the rule of law after the city has faced challenges in recent years. He said that some people “behaved disrespectfully towards the judges, [towards] court and our legal system.
The new president went on to say that throughout the nearly 20 years since Hong Kong returned to China in 1997, there have been many times when people have pointed out that the rule of law in the city was “dead”. Hong Kong’s rule of law was both “precious” and “fragile”, he said, and faced challenges like the rest of the world’s legal systems.
“But every day…many people in the legal sector work very hard to safeguard the rule of law,” he said. “Personally, and the position of the Bar Association, is that the rule of law in Hong Kong is not dead.”
Relationship with Beijing
Dawes said he was confident the Bar Association will have channels to “communicate closely” with the Hong Kong government and the central government. He also said that if the situation of the Covid-19 pandemic allowed it, he and other members of the association “would definitely like to go to Beijing”.
When asked if he or other elected leaders of the association had ‘received Beijing’s blessing’, the president said none of them had been encouraged to run by central authorities “We decided to show up because we felt it was time we gave back…at the bar.”
Lawyer facing national security trial
The Bar Association’s new head was asked about action that could be taken against its member Chow Hang-tung, who is facing trial under the National Security Law. Dawes said he couldn’t comment because the case was still ongoing. The new chairman said the matter will be dealt with under the group’s usual disciplinary procedure “which has worked very well”.
Lawyer Chow and several former organizers of the annual Tiananmen massacre vigils in Hong Kong are charged with incitement to subversion. The 36-year-old is also serving a total of 22 months in prison for inciting people to participate in rallies on June 4, 2020 and 2021, which were banned by police citing Covid-19 fears.
Trust in the new leader
Speaking to reporters after the association’s meeting, prominent pro-democracy lawyer Margaret Ng and senior lawyer Martin Lee both expressed confidence in the new leader, local media reported.
Ng told the press that the election results showed that the members of the association were still ready to stand up despite the difficult times. The lawyer said she had great respect for Dawes and urged the public to continue to trust the professional body.
Ng and Lee had been investigated by the association over their conviction in a protest-related case, in which they received suspended prison sentences. The investigation was then put on hold as the couple decided to challenge the court judgment.