Hong Kong’s High Court has allowed media tycoon Jimmy Lai on Wednesday to hire a barrister from the UK to handle his high-profile national security trial, saying that it was “clearly in the public interest.”

Lai is currently facing three charges under the national security law – two counts of conspiracy to collude with foreign countries or external elements and one count of collusion with foreign forces – and one count under the colonial-era sedition law of conspiracy to print, publish, sell, offer for sale, distribute, display and/or reproduce seditious publications.

Jimmy Lai
Jimmy Lai being transferred to the Court of Final Appeal on February 9, 2021.

High Court Judge Jeremy Poon granted an application on Wednesday for King’s Counsel Timothy Owen to represent Lai in the trial, which is scheduled to start on December 1.

King’s Counsels are the equivalent of senior counsels in Hong Kong, and they require permission to be allowed to represent clients in the city’s courts.

Poon refuted objections from the secretary for justice and the Bar Council of the Hong Kong Bar Association, which argued that the issues involved in the case were not of “unusual difficulty or complexity,” and that Owen would not “add a significant dimension to the trial.”

The secretary and the Bar also argued that the unavailability of Lai’s other representative Senior Counsel Robert Pang, or other senior counsels, would not justify allowing Owen to represent Lai.

Great general importance

The judge ruled on Wednesday that issues which would arise during the trial, such as how the national security law and the sedition law should be understood in relation to freedom of expression, were “of great general public importance.”

High Court
High Court. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

“In my view, they are clearly of such significance that warrant the admission of specialist counsel of the highest calibre to argue the case before the court,” Poon wrote in the judgement published on Wednesday.

Poon also said that the trial would probably touch upon “in-depth and rigorous analysis of the intricate interplay between national security and the constitutional right to the freedom of expression to ensure that a proportionate balance is drawn for safeguarding national security on the one hand and protecting the freedom of expression on the other.”

“Thus viewed, this case will be of immense importance to the development of local jurisprudence on the application of the [national security law] and the protection of the freedom of expression,” wrote Poon.

The 74-year-old Lai has been remanded in custody since December 2020. He has since been sentenced other protest-related cases.

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Candice is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously worked as a researcher at a local think tank. She has a BSocSc in Politics and International Relations from the University of Manchester and a MSc in International Political Economy from London School of Economics.