Hong Kong’s Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng has defended the government’s new proposal to allow the Department of Justice’s (DoJ) legal officers — including its solicitors — to be appointed as senior counsel, saying that they should receive the same recognition as their peers in the bar.

Teresa cheng
Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng. Photo: RTHK screenshot.

In response to questions put forth by lawmakers at the Legislative Council (LegCo) on Wednesday, Cheng said the government’s proposal to allow its legal officers to take silk will not make any difference to the existing mechanism of appointment nor to barristers in private practice.

“[The DoJ’s] Legal officers, according to the law, enjoy the same rights as solicitors and barristers do, and their work does not differentiate between those who are solicitor advocates or solicitors,” Cheng said. Legal officers of the government may advocate in court whether they are qualified solicitors or barristers, she said.

“That has been troubling me for a while. Why is [it] that my colleagues in the Department of Justice who are by their qualification a solicitor – but actually arguing very well and very efficiently with great eloquence and advocacy in the Court of Final Appeal — are not being recognised that they are actually even better than their counterparts?” Cheng told the press after the LegCo session.

The proposal was triggered by the appointment of Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions Vinci Lam as senior counsel, Cheng said. Lam — who had been qualified as a solicitor — was made senior counsel in May, one year after becoming a barrister. She took time off from her government position last year to complete her pupillage. She was known to have pursued tougher sentences against defendants in protest-related criminal cases.

High court
File photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

“The formality really has to be [done] away with,” Cheng said.

The Hong Kong Bar Association sent out a letter to its membership on Tuesday to seek their opinion on the government’s proposal, which it said will potentially have a significant impact on the industry, HK01 reported.

Currently barristers may be appointed as senior counsel by the chief justice of the Court of Final Appeal, after consulting with the chairman of the Bar Association and the president of the Law Society. The appointments are evaluated against the individual’s abilities, knowledge of the law, experience, and stature.

“Appointment by merit”

Hong Kong now has 105 senior counsels, according to the Hong Kong Bar Association’s website.

“The proposal will not change any conditions to appoint senior counsels at present,” Cheng said. “We support appointment by merit.”

Judiciary Court of Final Appeal
Photo: GovHK.

She also said in response to critics that the government’s legal officers would not be able to maintain their title as senior counsels after leaving their job.

Audrey Eu, senior counsel and former chairman of the Hong Kong Bar, told Commercial Radio that barristers may be appointed only if they have a long-standing reputation, and are widely seen as having a strong sense of justice. The government should include other solicitors in its proposal and not only legal officers working in the government, she said.

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Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.