A university talk by a UK lawyer barred from representing Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai has been axed, with the University of Hong Kong (HKU) attributing the cancellation to “unforeseen circumstances.”

Timothy Owen
Jimmy Lai lost a legal battle with the government over putting King’s Counsel Timothy Owen (pictured) on his defense team. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

Barrister Timothy Owen was scheduled to speak at the HKU’s Faculty of Law on Friday, according to the event website. The UK-based lawyer was meant to give an evening lecture about threats to judicial independence and the rule of law.

In a response to HKFP, the university’s law faculty forwarded an email announcing the cancellation to those who had signed up.

“We regret to inform you that the [event] scheduled for November 17, 2023 at 7:00pm has been cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances,” the email read.

The faculty did not respond to questions from HKFP about why the free, public event – co-organised by the university and legal firm Boase Cohen & Collins (BC&C) – was cancelled.

Local media outlet Ming Pao reported that the law faculty was under pressure for hosting the talk. With the moderator of the talk faculty dean Fu Hualing having travelled out of Hong Kong due to an emergency, and after assessing the risks, the faculty decided to cancel the event, the newspaper said citing sources.

The University of Hong Kong. File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.
The University of Hong Kong. File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Owens was also slated to give a talk at China Club, a private members’ club in Central, on Wednesday, BC&C said on its website. Ming Pao reported that the talk had also been cancelled.

When HKFP called China Club, a staff member who answered said this was a private club and that they had no comment, before hanging up the phone.

HKFP has also reached out to Fu, BC&C and Owen for comment.

Overseas lawyer saga

Owen was at the centre of a court saga sparked by Lai’s plan to hire him – an overseas lawyer – for his upcoming national security trial scheduled to begin in December. As he is not qualified to practice in the city, Owen required permission to represent clients in the courts.

The High Court approved to allow Owen representing Lai last October. The Department of Justice later filed four attempts to block Owen’s admission but the Court of Appeal and Court of Final Appeal dismissed all the government bids.

The cancellation of the talks came almost a year after Chief Executive John Lee requested that Beijing determine whether overseas lawyers can take part in the city’s national security trials. Beijing then issued its first interpretation of the national security law, deciding that the power to admit or deny a foreign lawyer laid with the city’s leader, not the courts.

Students at the University of Hong Kong. File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.
Students at the University of Hong Kong. File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Following Beijing’s decision, the national security committee decided – in a private meeting – that Owen’s participation in Lai’s trial would harm national security interests. The committee also advised immigration authorities to reject any further visa applications from Owen for the case.

Lai will face trial from December 18, represented by barrister Steven Kwan and senior counsel Robert Pang.

Owen has acted in many high-profile cases in Hong Kong, including representing one of the police officers accused in a 2014 beating in Admiralty that saw a social worker attacked near the site of an Umbrella Movement protest.

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Irene Chan is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press and has an interest in covering political and social change. She previously worked at Initium Media as chief editor for Hong Kong news and was a community organiser at the Society for Community Organisation serving the underprivileged. She has a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Fudan University and a master’s degree in social work from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Irene is the recipient of two Society of Publishers in Asia (SOPA) awards and three honourable mentions for her investigative, feature and video reporting. She also received a Human Rights Press Award for multimedia reporting and an honourable mention for feature writing.