A seasoned Hong Kong prosecutor who successfully obtained tougher punishments for young anti-government protesters has been promoted to the prestigious rank of senior counsel.
Vinci Lam Wing-sai was previously admitted as a solicitor and qualified as a barrister last year. Legal insiders said being made senior counsel in such a short time was rare, but they also recognised her ample experience and praised her as more reasonable than some of her counterparts at the Department of Justice.
Chief Justice Andrew Cheung Kui-nung announced the appointment by the deputy director of public prosecution on Tuesday.
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The 47-year-old will be called a silk – referring to the material of her new barrister gown as opposed to the wool or cotton ones worn by her junior counterparts – at a ceremony on May 29.
Three other barristers, Philip Chau Ka-chun, Law Man-chung and Norman Nip Sum-ping, were also promoted to senior counsel. The chief justice grants the title to the city’s most outstanding barristers annually in recognition of their work.
Lam recently argued in the appeal court for a custodial sentence for a 16-year-old who had pleaded guilty to an arson charge after hurling a petrol bomb at the Chai Wan Police Married Quarters in late 2019. A lower court had handed the teen, who suffers from Asperger syndrome, a probation order, which Lam said was insufficient. Three appeal court judges sided with her and sent the protester to a training centre.
During the hearing, Lam also urged the court to set aside a three-decade-old rule and allow prosecutors to recommend specific punishments for various offenders, but the chief justice of the High Court immediately rejected the request.
She was not particularly aggressive or unreasonable
In a separate case, Lam convinced the High Court to overturn the acquittals of two 14-year-olds accused of taking part in an unlawful assembly outside Polytechnic University in November 2019, when the city was rocked by social unrest.
Lam studied law at the University of Hong Kong and joined the Department of Justice in 1991. But she was not admitted as a barrister in the beginning. She took some time off last year to complete her pupillage and was subsequently called to the bar.
A defence lawyer, who preferred to remain anonymous as he had represented protesters in cases against her and would continue to do so, described Lam as a “reasonable” prosecutor.
“She was not particularly aggressive or unreasonable,” he said.
The lawyer said barristers rarely become a senior counsel in the course of a year. But he noted that prosecutors who had qualified as solicitors had to fight cases at all levels of the court, unlike their counterparts in private practice who focused mostly on paperwork and faced restrictions in representing clients at the High Court and above. Such experience would be a factor in deciding promotion to senior counsel, he said.
Former director of public prosecutions Grenville Cross said Lam was “highly intelligent, resourceful, and a problem-solver” when she was his assistant between 2004 and 2008.
“She has wide experience as a prosecutor and has established a formidable reputation as an advocate, having handled significant cases at all levels up to and including the Court of Final Appeal,” he said.
Cross added that while little difference existed between solicitors and barristers who worked for the Department of Justice, only the latter were allowed to take silk.
“This meant that, unless Vinci, as a solicitor, switched over to the bar, she would be barred from taking silk, even though her work portfolio has been at the silk level for some years,” he said.
Some members of the legal sector have recently hit out at what they called the department’s “all-out” effort in going after protesters charged over their roles in the social unrest.
Justice minister Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah said the department had applied to review the sentencing in 17 cases last year, all but one of which were related to the protests. Six applications were made in 2018 and four in 2019. The government has succeeded in reviewing the sentences in all 15 cases handled by the Court of Appeal since 2020.
The applications were made when the department found the punishment was “not authorised by law, is wrong in principle or is manifestly excessive or manifestly inadequate”, Cheng said.
This article Hong Kong prosecutor who sought tougher penalties for protesters elevated to senior counsel first appeared on South China Morning Post