Seven cases were recorded in 2017 where law enforcement listened in on calls involving confidential legal material, according to a new report by Hong Kong’s surveillance watchdog.

Commissioner on Interception of Communications and Surveillance Azizul Suffiad said the information was “inadvertently obtained” by officers who did not expect the call to contain confidential legal discussions. Only one such case was reported in 2016.

Mr Justice Azizul Suffiad (left) attended a passing-out parade at HK Police College. File Photo: Gov HK.

The commissioner also reported 18 cases of non-compliance or irregularity, up from 11 reports the year before.

However, Suffiad said that none of the offenders – who were not identified – showed ill will or a deliberate disregard for rules.

“Most of the cases of non-compliance/irregularity/incident in 2017 were consequences of inadvertence or carelessness of the officers concerned, reflecting that some of the officers were still not vigilant and cautious enough in discharging [interception and surveillance] duties,” he wrote.

Suffiad said he was satisfied overall with the performance of law enforcement agencies, but that there had been a few cases in which officers were “not conversant” with operating procedures.

“The heads of [law enforcement agencies] should endeavour to provide their officers with sufficient training to facilitate them to better perform [interception and surveillance] duties,” he added.

File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Two cases of irregularities involved the same pair of officers: the agency issued warnings and later transferred them away to a different department.

‘Trying their luck’

Deputy Chair of the legislature’s Panel on Security James To said the situation was worrying and questioned whether officers were fishing for information in a “catch-all” manner.

“I urge the Commissioner to study the cases in detail to see if law enforcement agencies were lax or not rigorous,” To said. “Did the officers really get the information inadvertently, or did they have an attitude of trying their luck?”

To noted that there was only one case in 2015 and 2016 respectively that involved confidential legal material, and the increase in 2017 was “unusual.”

James To Kun-sun. Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

Communications between lawyers and their clients are protected by “legal professional privilege” and law enforcement must notify the commissioner in cases where such information may be involved.

A total of 1,303 interception authorisations were issued by panel judges in 2017, compared to 1,416 in 2016 and 1,428 in 2015.

The report also added that, in 2017, a total of 170 persons were arrested in relation to surveillance and interception operations.

Overall, the average duration of authorisations issued in 2017 was about 30 days.

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Holmes Chan

Holmes Chan is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. He covers local news with a focus on law, politics, and social movements. He studied law and literature at the University of Hong Kong.