Hong Kong is challenging its own court system to stop a pro-democracy tycoon from hiring a British lawyer as the city seeks to redeem its reputation as Asia’s premier financial center.
After the Chinese Territory’s top court denied the government’s recent request to bar Jimmy Lai from hiring Timothy Owen to defend him, the city leader said he asked Beijing to interpret a sweeping 2020 national security law for the first time.
If China’s top legislative body, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, reverses the decision, foreign lawyers could be barred from representing defendants in cases involving the security law, which was imposed to quell pro-democracy protests .
Hong Kong has launched a campaign to lure investors back to the city after tight Covid-19 controls and political crackdowns sparked an exodus of residents. As part of the charm offensive, which included hosting rugby sevens after a three-year hiatus, officials have repeatedly insisted to global business leaders that their legal system is free from government interference.
“The timing of this is terrible. The Hong Kong government, on the one hand, claims to be an open society with the rule of law and then tries to overrule a Supreme Court ruling by going straight to Beijing,” said Tara Joseph of the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation. former head of the American Chamber of Commerce in the city.
“This contradicts exactly what the Hong Kong government preaches about the city’s unique qualities. Hong Kong has always said it is open to international lawyers and judges. It just goes against the ideal it espoused.”
Beijing’s Liaison Office, China’s top body overseeing Hong Kong affairs, has criticized Monday’s appeals court decision. It said the involvement of foreign lawyers in cases would “contrary to the intent” of the national security law.
Lai has been charged with foreign collusion over his role as owner of the defunct pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, which was targeted by authorities for its defiant coverage of the 2019 protests. He has pleaded not guilty.
“There are no funds for that [an overseas lawyer] was not coerced, compromised or controlled in any way by any foreign government, association or person,” said Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee.
Lee added that Beijing will decide whether overseas lawyers, whom he described as “unqualified to practice in Hong Kong generally,” could be implicated in national security cases.
Hong Kong has a common law system in which foreign lawyers and judges hold offices. Foreign judges are also visiting Hong Kong to sit on the Court of Final Appeal, although Lord Robert Reed, President of the UK Supreme Court, and Lord Patrick Hodge, who also sits on the UK Supreme Court, resigned this year.
“This is . . . a blow to the city’s highest court, as it is believed to have final decision-making authority,” said Eric Yan-Ho Lai, a Hong Kong legal scholar at Georgetown University’s Center for Asian Law. The remaining foreign judges should realize their limited role given to them by the Chinese authorities these days.”
The Hong Kong government has asked the court to postpone Lai’s trial, which was due to start on Thursday.