The Hong Kong Bar Association should not handle or discuss political issues, the newly-elected chairman Victor Dawes has said, as the senior counsel vowed to safeguard the city’s rule of law which “is not dead.”

Barristers in Hong Kong elected Dawes on Thursday night to fill the shoes of Senior Council Paul Harris who faced strong criticism from Beijing during his term last year. The former leader was accused of politicising the professional body, while pro-establishment figures called him a “liability” and an “existential threat” to the group.

Victor Dawes
Senior Counsel Victor Dawes (middle). Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Speaking to the press after the annual general meeting, Dawes faced questions about how he would tackle criticism that the Bar Association was politicised. In response, the new leader said the group has a duty to speak up on issues related to the rule of law, but the 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 the social responsibility to speak up. But when it comes to politics… these topics should not be what the Bar Association should handle or discuss,” Dawes said, while standing alongside senior counsels Derek Chan and Jose-Antonio Maurellet who were elected as the new vice-chiefs. They faced no competition in the election.

Dawes, who specialises in commercial litigation and chancery disputes, added that the group will “grasp” the difference between social and political issues in the coming year as there may be areas where the two overlapped.

Jose-Antonio Maurellet
Senior Counsel Jose-Antonio Maurellet. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Dawes’ predecessor Harris came under fire from Beijing’s office in Hong Kong last year after the then-chairman criticised the sentencing of veteran democrats in cases linked to the 2019 pro-democracy protests and unrest.

The Liaison Office slammed Harris as “spreading distorted opinion” and “blatantly supporting those who violated the law.” It told the lawyer to “stop veering off the road of politicisation.”

Asked whether the government’s bid to enact the controversial Basic Law Article 23 legislation was a social or political issue, Dawes said the association would do its best to participate in the bill-drafting process and express its views on the proposal.

“We will pay close attention to important legal issues like this and speak up at appropriate times,” he said.

article 23
A banner against Article 23 security law. FIle Photo: HKFP/Ellie Ng.

Article 23 of the Basic Law stipulates that the government shall enact laws on its own to prohibit acts of treason, secession, sedition and subversion against Beijing. Its legislation failed in 2003 following mass protests and it was not tabled again until after the onset of the separate, Beijing-imposed security law in 2020. Pro-democracy advocates fear it could have a negative effect on civil liberties.

Rule of law ‘not dead’

Dawes said some members of society had formed a pessimistic view of the rule of law after the city faced challenges over the past few years. He said some people “carried out disrespectful conduct against judges, [towards] court and our legal system.”

The new chairman went on to say that, throughout the 20-odd years after Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997, there had been many times when people remarked that the city’s rule of law was “dead.” Hong Kong’s rule of law was “precious” and “fragile” at the same time, he said, and has faced challenges like legal systems in the rest of the world.

Court of Final Appeal
Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

“But every day… a lot of people in the legal sector work really hard to safeguard the rule of law,” he said. “I personally, and the stance of the Bar Association, is that Hong Kong’s rule of law is not dead.”

Relationship with Beijing

Dawes said he was confident that the Bar Association will have channels to “closely communicate” with the Hong Kong and Central government. He also said if the Covid-19 pandemic situation allows, he and other members of the association would “definitely want to go to Beijing.”

Asked if he or other elected leaders of the association had “received Beijing’s blessing,” the chairman said none of them was encouraged to run by the central authorities: “We decided to run because we believed it is about time we give back… to the bar.”

Derek Chan
Senior Counsel Derek Chan (middle). Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Barrister facing national security trial

The new Bar Association leader was asked what action may be taken against its member Chow Hang-tung who is facing trial under the national security law. Dawes said he could not give comment because the matter was still ongoing. The new chairman said the case will be dealt under the group’s usual disciplinary procedure “which has worked very well.”

Barrister Chow and several former organisers of Hong Kong’s annual Tiananmen Massacre vigils stand accused of inciting subversion. The 36-year-old is also serving a total of 22 months in prison for inciting people to take part in rallies on June 4, 2020 and 2021, which were banned by police citing Covid-19 fears.

Confidence in new leader

Speaking to reporters after the association’s meeting, prominent pro-democracy barrister Margaret Ng and Senior Counsel Martin Lee both expressed confidence in the new leader, local media reported.

Margaret Ng
Margaret Ng. File photo: Studio Incendo.

Ng told the press that the election results showed members of the association were still willing to stand up despite the difficult times. The barrister said she has a lot of respect for Dawes and urged the public to continue trusting the professional body.

Ng and Lee had faced a probe by the association over their conviction in a protest-related case, in which they were handed suspended jail terms. The investigation was later put on hold as the pair decided to challenge the court’s judgement.

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Ho Long Sze Kelly is a Hong Kong-based journalist covering politics, criminal justice, human rights, social welfare and education. As a Senior Reporter at Hong Kong Free Press, she has covered the aftermath of the 2019 extradition bill protests and the Covid-19 pandemic extensively, as well as documented the transformation of her home city under the Beijing-imposed national security law.

Kelly has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration. Prior to joining HKFP in 2020, she was on the frontlines covering the 2019 citywide unrest for South China Morning Post’s Young Post. She also covered sports and youth-related issues.