An international legal centre has launched a website advising Hongkongers how to react and what to expect if they find themselves facing arrest or prosecution, warning that the mounting number of criminal charges after the 2019 protests threatens to overwhelm the city’s lawyers.

The “Know Your Rights HK” site has been created by experts and law students from the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice in New York. It provides information in both Chinese and English on individuals’ legal rights and obligations – from their first encounter with law enforcement to when they find themselves in front of a magistrate.

Photo: Know Your Rights Hong Kong via Facebook.

“We feel there is a space or a niche for something that is very user-friendly for non-lawyers,” founding co-director Martin Flaherty told HKFP. “There are two main areas where we are trying to inform people what the law is and what their rights are. One is due process and the other is access to the legal aid system in Hong Kong.”

“What the platform is trying to do is to give a more comprehensive yet simple and easily accessible way [of providing access to legal rights knowledge],” he said. “For example, your relatives, your son, your daughter gets arrested… or if you think you might be in a situation where you might be arrested, you can look at this beforehand and see ‘OK, here are the things I must turn over… here are the things I don’t have to do’.'”

The platform is hosted on CivicSight’s website, a US-registered non-profit housed within the Fordham Law School promoting access to information in Hong Kong.

Overburdened legal system

The platform was created in part in response to a sharp rise in criminal charges in Hong Kong following the 2019 pro-democracy movement, which saw peaceful demonstrations descend into often violent clashes between protesters and police.

More than 10,200 people have been arrested in connection with the demonstrations, while the city’s crime rate climbed 6.7 per cent from 2019 to 2020.

October 1 Police arrest cordon causeway bay
File photo: Tam Ming Keung/HKFP.

The rise in criminal charges means many Hongkongers are for the first time forced to navigate the obscure legalese and complex procedures of a legal system with which they are unfamiliar.

“For whatever reason one wants to point to, it is just a fact that in the last several years that more people have had more encounters with the authorities, encounters with the legal system. There’s been more arrests,” Flaherty said.

The centre warned that the increase in charges threatens to overwhelm the city’s lawyers in coming years. “If you look at the statistics, it has put great pressure on the solicitor and barrister community. The rate of arrests has gone up so much that it is in some measure exceeding the capacity of lawyers in Hong Kong, which makes it all the more critical that people know their basic rights,” Flaherty said.

‘Uncertainties ahead’

The platform comes at a critical juncture in the evolution of Hong Kong’s legal system, after a sweeping national security law was imposed by Beijing last June 30.

Flaherty told HKFP the Leitner team was “closely monitoring” how courts will interpret the new legislation, while its implications for the city’s common law system and for judicial independence remain to be seen.

National security law
Photo: GovHK.

“The relation of the national security law to Hong Kong’s traditional legal system remains unclear. It doesn’t seem to comport with it, it doesn’t seem to rest easily within Hong Kong’s judicial system,” he added.

Since it came into force, more than 100 people have been arrested under the law while 57 pro-democracy activists and political figures have been charged and brought to court. Most are in custody pending trial at a date to be determined.

Flaherty said basic legal principles were still applicable to the majority of criminal cases in the city. “The overwhelming number of arrests are under pre-national security law Hong Kong laws and I think that trend remains. So the national security law remains an exception; whether it’ll stay exceptional, we’ll see,” he said.

The platform will be adjusted in accordance with upcoming court decisions. “We’re monitoring how the legal system is going to integrate the national security law into its traditional framework, so we will adjust the platform once the courts make clear what exactly the relationship is.”

Rule of law

Amid lingering uncertainty over Hong Kong’s judicial independence, the platform’s creators also hope it will promote international standards of the rule of law. “Fairness and transparency in the exercise of public powers are fundamental components of the rule of law. In this context, an empowered public is a well-informed one,” a statement from the centre read.

“A critical component in maintaining the rule of law is that people know what the law is and what their rights are under the law,” Flaherty told HKFP. “A big part of what we do is to inform laypeople what their rights are, local law first, because access to justice is where the rule of law begins.”

lady justice court
Photo: Wikicommons.

He said the platform aimed to complement an initiative called “Vision 2030 for Rule of Law” launched by the city’s Department of Justice that looks to promote the rule of law as a pillar of “sustainable development.”

Flaherty said the rule of law was vital for Hong Kong’s status as an international financial centre. “Hong Kong has long had the reputation of not just having one of the best legal systems in Asia, but one of the best legal systems in the world.”

“It is on that basis that Hong Kong has been at the centre of finance, the centre of investment, and really a key to Hong Kong’s success is precisely a legal system that reflects universal values with regards to the rule of law,” he said. “It’s strength has been its integration into the international community.”

He said the international community was “monitoring the situation very closely.”

The Leitner Center for International Law and Justice is affiliated with Fordham Law School in New York and promotes access to justice and the rule of law across the world.

Correction: 03.05.21: A previous version of this article described CivicSight as a local non-profit. It has been corrected to state it is registered in the US.

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Rhoda Kwan is HKFP's Assistant Editor. She has previously written for TimeOut Hong Kong and worked at Meanjin, a literary journal. She holds a double bachelor’s degree in Law and Literature from the University of Hong Kong.