Archivists have criticised a consultation paper issued by the Law Reform Commission for not going far enough in proposing a “proper” archives law for Hong Kong.

The Archives Action Group (AAG) said on Monday that the consultation paper “failed to provide informative analyses and useful recommendations,” and leaned towards supporting a conservative version of the law.

Maurice Chan, Simon Chu, Don Brech
From left: AAG members Maurice Chan, Simon Chu, Don Brech. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

“The initial response [of the AAG] is half-satisfied, half-worried. We’re happy that the government is finally willing to take the first step on an archives law, but we’re worried they took a wrong step,” the group said in a statement.

On Thursday, a sub-committee of the Law Reform Commission issued a consultation paper which suggested introducing an archives law in the city. However, the document failed to give details on topics such as criminal penalties.

Activists, politicians and scholars have called for an archives law for more than a decade, arguing that it would help preserve key documents in Hong Kong’s history and increase the government’s accountability.

Government records and archives are managed by the Government Records Service, and an official Code on Access to Information has been in place since 1995. The public can cite it when asking for information, but the Code has no legal effect.

Archives law press conference
Law Reform Commission press conference on the Archives Law consultation paper. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

AAG member Simon Chu, who was formerly head of the Government Records Service, said on Monday that the consultation paper seemed to defend existing practices more than introduce reforms.

“On the one hand, this sub-committee spent five years studying the issue, and concluded there was a need for legislation. On the other hand, it directly or indirectly affirmed the existing model,” Chu wrote. “It seems they are contradicting themselves.”

Criminal penalties 

On Thursday, lawyer Andrew Liao – who leads the law reform sub-committee in question – did not mention any specific penalties related to an archives law. Liao added that criminal penalties may affect the morale of civil servants.

Chu, however, said: “Spitting on the ground and jaywalking are also against the law, and will be punished. Would that affect your morale?”

Simon Chu Fook-keung
Simon Chu. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

Chu said that there should be a sliding scale for penalties under an archives law, with the minimum being a fine.

AAG member Maurice Chan, a practising barrister, also said it was unthinkable for an archives law to roll out without legal sanctions.

Chu also claimed that the government was “de-professionalising” the Government Records Service, allowing administrative staff untrained in archival techniques to take up leadership roles.

Asked about the scope of the archives law, Chu said it should apply to all government agencies and key public bodies, and it was not an excuse for the government to cite resource constraints.

Simon Chu, Don Brech
Simon Chu and Don Brech. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

“For the Government Records Service, it is no problem to increase its budget,” Chu said, pointing to its staff increases in recent years.

Chu also urged the government to legislate an archives law at the same time as an access to information law. The former is concerned with preserving records while the latter allows the public to access those records, he said.

Press criticism

The Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) also issued a separate statement on Monday expressing disappointment with the Law Reform Commission sub-committee’s consultation paper.

“[We are] concerned that these laws, which are important for monitoring the government and pubic bodies, will be delayed indefinitely,” the statement read.

Archives law consultation paper
Archives law consultation paper. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

The HKJA also noted the consultation questions were open-ended, which “makes it difficult for the consultation result to create any pressure or guidance to the government, allowing it to further delay legislation.”

The archives law public consultation will continue until March 5.

When asked about their timetable, the Law Reform Commission sub-committee on Thursday did not confirm a deadline for their final report.

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.