21st February 2024

“The complaints and investigation on this occasion serve as a reminder to all members of the need to abide by the code strictly, so as to maintain the high standard of integrity of the bar, and to avoid doubts from the public.”

Bar Association chairman Victor Dawes (right). Photo: Yik Yeung-man

National security police lodged complaints with the association and the Law Society in May 2022 after the force’s investigation into the now-closed 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund uncovered “suspected misconduct by solicitors and barristers” in their provision of legal services.

The barristers were accused of accepting payments from the fund to represent defendants who had sought legal support in proceedings linked to the social unrest.

A police insider had told the Post that some barristers had told the judiciary they were providing pro bono services.

When asked whether the complaints filed by police two years ago had increased pressure on the body and profession, Dawes said the city’s barristers should have no cause for concern as long as they abided by the law and regulations.

“We have used a lot of resources and time to make sure that our findings are safe and also in accordance with the relevant evidence,” he said. “Pressure or not, I think it doesn’t matter at the end of the day, because we’ve all got to play by the rules.”

The results of the investigation were revealed on Friday when Dawes met the press, a day after he was elected association chairman for a third time.

He said a focus for 2024 would be the promised home-grown national security legislation required under Article 23 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution.

The law should be clear and strike a balance between national security and fundamental rights guaranteed by the Basic Law, Dawes said.

He also stressed the legal sector had tackled an unprecedented volume and diverse types of cases related to the 2019 social unrest.

“Members of the public may not fully understand the professional rules regarding fees, and the keeping of documents and records, and it is not difficult to understand why they may raise questions about the barristers’ conduct,” he said.

Secretary of defunct legal fund for Hong Kong protesters arrested at airport

The association’s code of conduct requires a practising barrister to only accept fee payments by cheque or bank transfer from a company, firm or other body that instructed the barrister, with exceptions being made if instructed by the Department of Justice.

An ad hoc committee set up by the association found that seven barristers accused of misleading the court by representing they had acted pro bono but in fact had been paid were able to prove they either had not made such claims or had not collected any fees from the clients.

Twenty-four out of 26 barristers accused of getting paid directly from the protest fund were also able to produce records showing that their cheques were sent from instructing law firms, with the remaining two failing to keep a “full documentary record”.

The two who failed to maintain proper records were among the four to receive letters from the association.

A police spokesman said: “Safeguarding national security is the responsibility of every citizen. Based on actual circumstances and in accordance with the law, the Hong Kong Police Force will maintain close communication and collaboration with relevant stakeholders to jointly safeguard national security.”

According to the fund’s website, barristers could receive HK$6,000 (US$767) for attending a half-day mention hearing at a magistrate’s court, and HK$20,000 for a bail hearing at the High Court. A lawyer visiting a detained defendant could receive HK$1,500 per hour, including travel time.

A Law Society investigation remained under way as of last May. The Post has contacted the society for comment.

Police arrested five former trustees of the now-closed fund in May 2022 for allegedly colluding with foreign forces, among them retired Catholic leader Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, former lawmaker Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee and pop singer Denise Ho Wan-see.

Retired Hong Kong Catholic leader among 6 fined over defence fund for protesters

Another 10 former staff members and people connected to the fund were also arrested last August on suspicion of conspiring to collude with foreign forces. No charges have been laid so far.

In a separate case, the five trustees and the fund’s secretary were fined up to HK$4,000 each in November 2022 for failing to register the legal defence fund in accordance with the Societies Ordinance.

The fund provided more than HK$243 million to protesters facing prosecution or financial hardship before it shut down in 2021.