The Hong Kong government’s plan to vet overseas counsels in national security cases does not bar measures such as denying visas to handle foreign lawyers already granted admission, the city’s lawmakers were told on Friday.

The issue of overseas counsels’ participation in the city’s national security cases arose after media tycoon Jimmy Lai sought to hire King’s Counsel Timothy Owen to represent him in his national security trial, which has been adjourned until September.

Timothy Owen
King’s Counsel Timothy Owen leaving the Court of Final Appeal in Central on November 25, 2022. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

Lai, 75, faces one count of collusion with foreign forces and two counts of conspiracy to collude with foreign forces under the Beijing-imposed legislation. He has also been charged under the colonial-era sedition law over allegedly seditious publications.

The High Court admitted Owen in October last year despite government objection. The Court of Appeal and the Court of Final Appeal later rejected three more attempts from the government to bar Owen from handling Lai’s case.

Following the top court ruling, Chief Executive John Lee invited Beijing to intervene last November. The following month, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) decided that Lee and Hong Kong’s Committee For Safeguarding National Security had final say on the matter.

Legislative Council
Hong Kong Legislative Council. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Since the NPCSC decision, the government has proposed amending the law to allow the chief executive to decide whether overseas counsels can handle national security cases.

Under the government’s latest proposal, a review mechanism would require the court to ask the chief executive to review the admission of the overseas counsel if necessary, such as if a case unrelated to national security matters were later deemed to involve national security.

The Legislative Council’s (LegCo) Bills Committee on Legal Practitioners (Amendment) Bill 2023 met for the first time on Friday, during which representatives from the Department of Justice were asked if the proposed mechanism could be used to review applications that had already been granted.

Llewellyn Mui, solicitor general from the Department of Justice, told lawmakers on Friday that the proposal would not be applied retroactively, meaning that it would not overturn court decisions already made.

Priscilla Leung
Priscilla Leung. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

Pro-Beijing lawmaker Priscilla Leung asked if the government proposal would allow the administration to use other measures to deal with existing cases, to which Mui agreed.

“My understanding is that [the amendment] will not rule out the use of other measures… such as if we do not grant visas to those deemed unsuitable to enter [the city],” Leung said.

On the first day of Lai’s trial last December, it was revealed by senior counsel Robert Pang that Owen’s application to extend his work visa had been withheld by the Immigration Department. The King’s Counsel was not present at the trial.

Lai’s team has since asked the High Court to rule that the NPCSC’s decision would not affect Owen’s admission.

The High Court will hear the case on April 28.

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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.