New Hong Kong Bar chairman to ease strains with Beijing
Victor Dawes says Bar will speak out if necessary to improve government relations
Newly elected Hong Kong Bar Association chairman Victor Dawes SC is hoping to heal the rift with Beijing and restore relations that soured in 2018.
Upon taking over the association's 1,600 barristers after human rights lawyer Paul Harris stepped down, Dawes said he saw no reason why the association's regular meetings with Chinese officials and their counterparts could not resume.
After he was elected as chairman in an uncontested election, Dawes told the local press that he would want to travel to Beijing if invited and the Covid situation permitted, adding it was important for both his barristers' and the public's best interests to maintain close communication with both the mainland Chinese and Hong Kong governments.
As part of its duties, the Bar will speak out when necessary about Hong Kong's rule of law, including the controversial National Security Law (NSL) in the Special Administrative Region.
In 2021, Beijing aggressively attacked Hong Kong's Bar Association after its outgoing British-born Chairman Harris floated a proposal to alter the controversial NSL, shortly after he took office.
China's local office in Hong Kong termed Harris an 'anti-China politician' after the sweeping legislation went into effect in July 2021, while Chinese state media called for his dismissal.
Eventually, Harris, who went on to represent defendants under the NSL, became much less visible to the public and seldom gave interviews.
Dawes was seen by barristers as a moderate candidate for leadership of Hong Kong's advocacy branch, having been called to the Bar in 1999 and made silk in 2015. He is a barrister and specialist in commercial disputes at Temple Chambers. Meanwhile, he is a non-executive member of Hong Kong's Securities and Futures Commission and serves as a deputy judge of the High Court.
The NSL is part of Hong Kong law and Dawes emphasized that despite the association going through a "tumultuous year," he encourages the public to give courts time to interpret the law.
He made the comment without directly addressing whether the [NSL] is in compliance with fundamental rights, which the defendants will no doubt raise in court if it is necessary for the law to be amended.
The association will certainly be concerned when there are issues regarding the rule of law in the following year and, if necessary, it will comment on the matter," he said, adding that it will actively participate in talks about enacting other laws to protect national security.
Throughout the interview, the veteran lawyer emphasized the Bar was a professional body and would not get involved in local politics. Among other things, he cited continued dialogue with mainland authorities about legal examinations to permit barristers to practice mainland law there, as well as more opportunities for barristers in China's Greater Bay Area and globally.
Hong Kong's Bar Association has been vocal on rule of law issues ever since the city's handover to China in 1997. It includes criticism of Beijing on its interpretation of the Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini-constitution.
China's senior officials routinely met with Bar delegations in Beijing after 1997, during which the Bar enjoyed a honeymoon period. Following Philip Dykes SC's election as chairman in 2018 and has served from 2005 to 2007, Harris's predecessor and fellow human rights barrister, Philip Dykes SC, ceased visits and dialogues with him.
A list of Bar candidates for the judicial appointments committee, which recommends whether certain applications should be heard at every level of Hong Kong's courts, has also been kept on hold since August 2021 by the SAR's government.
A group of solicitors seeking election to the Law Society of Hong Kong's council echoed similar sentiments when they stood against Dawes in a controversial and contested election. After being re-elected in 2020, the moderate slate was defeated by candidates from the establishment last year.
Pro-establishment candidate and lawyer Ambrose Lam, who currently represents the SAR Legislative Council's legal constituency, was re-elected with just 33percent of the vote, replacing the earlier incumbent Denis Kwok, a pan-democrat.
Kwok was disqualified from running for re-election as a barrister. Since then, he has taken up a position as an academic at Harvard University.