Hong Kong’s Department of Justice (DoJ) has filed an application to the city’s top court to appeal against a decision to allow a UK barrister to represent media tycoon Jimmy Lai in a high-profile national security trial due to begin next week.

According to the Court of Final Appeal’s website, a hearing will be held on Friday to handle an application for leave to appeal filed by the DoJ against the admission of King’s Counsel Timothy Owen in the trial.

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

The DoJ confirmed its application on Tuesday evening to HKFP, but said that it would not comment on ongoing proceedings.

Lai, who founded pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily, is facing three national security charges: two counts of conspiracy to collude with foreign countries or external elements, and one count of collusion with foreign forces. The trial is scheduled to begin on December 1.

The media tycoon is also accused of one sedition offence: conspiracy to print, publish, sell, offer for sale, distribute, display and/or reproduce seditious publications.

Three companies linked with the defunct news outlet will also stand trial.

Six former employees of Apple Daily or its parent company Next Digital pleaded guilty to a conspiracy to collude with external forces charged on Tuesday, and will be sentenced after Lai’s trial.

Fourth time’s a charm

The justice department’s latest application marks its the fourth attempt to block the admission of Owen. A Court of Appeal ruling on Monday rejected the department’s application to file to the top court.

Vice Presidents of the Court of Appeal Susan Kwan and Carlye Chu, as well as Justice of Appeal Thomas Au, objected to the department’s assertions that there was no meaningful or effective enforcement of overseas counsels’ obligations to confidentiality regarding state secrets or other confidential information once they leave Hong Kong.

The panel of three judges wrote in the judgement published on Monday that “the issue of State secrets does not arise on the facts of this case.”

The dispute over the decision to allow Owen to represent Lai was first reviewed in a case management hearing in September, when Senior Counsel Robert Pang said that the Bar Council of the Bar Association and the secretary for justice objected to allowing Lai to hire a lawyer from the UK.

Department of Justice
Department of Justice. Photo: GovHK.

The High Court later approved Owen’s admission in mid-October, with Chief Judge of the High Court Jeremy Poon saying that it was “clearly in the public interest” to do so. The DoJ filed an appeal against Poon’s decision on October 27.

The Court of Appeal ruled against the DoJ in early November, with Kwan, Chu, and Au ruling that the case would attract “substantial publicity locally and abroad,” and that “public perception of fairness in the trial is of vital importance to the administration of justice.”

The third attempt by the DoJ to block Owen’s representation was filed in mid-November, which the trio of judges dismissed on Monday.

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.

Admitting senior UK barristers in Hong Kong is not uncommon, with the government a frequent client. The Justice Department hired UK barrister David Perry in the bribery trial against ex-chief executive Donald Tsang in 2017.

Lai, who is 74 years old, has been remanded in custody for close to two years since December 2020. The media tycoon has since been sentenced to jail over other protest-related charges.

HKFP has reached out to the Bar Council for comment.

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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.