Hong Kong’s justice minister has refused to remark on comments made by former chief executive Leung Chun-ying, who called a ruling from the city’s appeal court allowing a UK lawyer to represent media tycoon Jimmy Lai in an upcoming national security trial “absurd.”

Leung was among powerful pro-Beijing voices who criticised the Court of Appeal’s Wednesday ruling, when it rejected an appeal from the Department of Justice (DoJ) against the High Court’s decision to let Lai hire King’s Counsel Tim Owen. Lai, who founded the defunct pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily, is due to stand trial for alleged foreign collusion next month.

Paul Lam Hong Kong Legal Week 2022
Secretary for Justice Paul Lam delivers a speech at the Hong Kong Legal Week 2022 on November 11, 2022. Photo: GovHK.

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

The appeal court’s decision amounted to “inviting the Brits to ‘develop’ the national security law for Hong Kong,” Leung wrote on Facebook on Thursday, adding the judges were “looking to the West for teaching and command” on the issue of national security in the city.

Speaking to reporters at Hong Kong Legal Week 2022, an annual event organised by the DoJ, Secretary for Justice Paul Lam was asked why he did not respond to Leung’s remarks to “defend the dignity of the judicial system.”

The reporter also questioned why the DoJ would oppose the hiring of Owen, when the department engaged King’s Counsel David Perry to prosecute an unlawful assembly case against the media tycoon last year.

Jimmy Lai
Jimmy Lai. File photo: Studio Incendo.

In response, the minister refused to comment, saying it would be inappropriate for him to respond to comments made by an individual.

“It is also inappropriate to comment on ongoing legal proceedings. Everyone understands that, at the end of the day, we have to respect the judicial system,” he said.

Responding to the question of whether the DoJ “targeted” defendants in national security cases and barred them from hiring overseas counsels, Lam said actions taken by the DoJ were all in accordance with the law and in line with the spirit of the rule of law.

“There is absolutely no special targeting or other [similar] situations,” he said.

The DoJ on Thursday said it was reviewing the Court of Appeal’s judgement and “considering the way forward.”

Judges Susan Kwan, Carlye Chu and Thomas Au ruled on Wednesday that the case against the 74-year-old mogul, which also involved a group of executives from the shuttered newspaper and its parent company Next Digital, is a “high profile case attracting substantial publicity locally and abroad.”

Timothy Owen KC
Timothy Owen KC. Photo: Matrix Chambers.

The legal issues to be resolved would have substantial impact on the development of jurisprudence of the national security law and sedition offences, the panel said, adding it was in the public interest to allow the hiring of Owen.

“Public perception of fairness in the trial is of vital importance to the administration of justice,” a written judgement from the panel read.

Lai, who has been in remand since December 2020, is facing three national security offences, including two counts of conspiracy to collude with foreign countries or external elements, and one count of collusion with foreign forces.

He also stands accused of being involved in a conspiracy to print, publish, sell, offer for sale, distribute, display and/or reproduce seditious publications under a separate, colonial-era sedition law.

The trial is set to commence on December 1. Six other defendants have pleaded guilty, and will appear in court on November 22.

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Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.