A warning by Hong Kong’s leader that authorities could cut ties with the city’s largest association of lawyers if it becomes politicised has led to most members treading on eggshells in deciding who gets their vote in coming leadership polls, according to insiders.
Some solicitors told the Post, however, that there were others in the Law Society poised to take a defiant stance by backing candidates likely to challenge authorities.
“Some of my friends began asking me who to vote for after hearing Carrie Lam’s remarks,” said a source with 19 years of legal experience and who only wanted to go by the pseudonym Kary.
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She was referring to remarks by the chief executive a week ago. Lam did not specifically endorse any candidate, but cautioned the Law Society not to put politics above professionalism, warning that the 12,000-strong group risked ending up like the recently disbanded Professional Teachers’ Union.
“[My peers] wanted to vote for those who would not cause such a break-up,” added Kary, a construction law specialist, who had already cast her ballot for five conservative candidates advocating professionalism.
They are Jimmy Chan Kwok-ho, Tom Fu Ka-min, Justin Yuen Hoi-ying, Ronald Sum Kwan-ngai and incumbent Careen Wong Hau-yan, who is seeking re-election. The five have also confirmed they had either worked with or had ties to Beijing’s liaison office in the city, but stressed that was unrelated to the election.
Another voter, Leon, who also preferred not to use his real name, settled for four other candidates seen as more liberal. He said Lam’s comments had given him more reason to stand firm.
“It’s a matter of dignity. It is as if the government is telling you that you can only follow their instruction,” said the human rights lawyer with three years of experience.
He voted also through mail for Selma Masood, Henry Wheare and two incumbents seeking re-election, Jonathan Ross and Denis Brock, who have shrugged off allegations that they had political leanings.
The remaining two candidates vying for five of the Law Society council’s 20 seats this year are William Tong and Nadine Lai.
Most members have already submitted their votes through mail or a proxy system. But some are expected to cast their ballots in person at the Convention and Exhibition Centre during an official annual meeting on Tuesday, where votes will also be counted.
The composition of the society’s governing council has come under scrutiny in recent years as it has a bearing on how vocal the influential body can be on a raft of legal and political issues.
The winners in last year’s election were four of five candidates in a team that vowed to press for a more outspoken Law Society. Their agenda included holding the police force accountable for what they called “problematic incidents” during the social unrest of 2019 – a key demand of the anti-government protest movement.
Some observers said this year’s election could prove a turning point, because if all four outspoken members were elected, they would join the remaining six vocal incumbents to make up half the council.
But their hopes were dashed when Ross announced his intention to withdraw over the weekend citing safety threats, another twist to a race that was initially expected to be quieter than in past years.
A voter, who wanted to go by the name Sabrina, had cast her ballot through mail for Ross and the other three liberal candidates. She said it was “interesting” that the chief executive, who was “obviously a political figure”, had lectured lawyers not to politicise the election.
She called on the society to reflect on what happened to Ross, who reportedly received threats in a largely internal election. According to Sabrina, the saga surrounding the polls could sway voters on either end of the spectrum.
“The Hong Kong Law Society requires a diverse voice on not just political but miscellaneous matters so it can be comprehensive,” said the solicitor with 24 years of experience.
Another lawyer, using the pseudonym Frank, said he had voted for the five-member conservative bloc, and that he respected people’s freedom of expression.
“But as a member of a professional governing body, I think it’s different. You are not entitled to advocate your political view,” said the corporate law specialist with more than 25 years of experience.
He said he was not affected by the chief executive’s remarks and had cast his vote based on his belief in professionalism.
Kary said she voted for the five as well because of business opportunities in mainland China, and she would not support candidates who might burn such bridges.
Wheare said the chief executive’s “intervention” had turned a “low-key election” in which all candidates had clearly stated they had no political agenda, into one where professionals had become “political candidates”. He stressed the law was politically neutral.
Melissa Pang Kaye, president of the Law Society, said the self-regulatory professional body, which is entrusted with the statutory duty of monitoring the conduct of law firms and lawyers, remained politically neutral.
“Members are free to decide how they wish to exercise their right to vote,” she said, adding that the body’s Articles of Association required it to appoint members to administer the voting process.
“The Law Society is fully committed to upholding the fairness and transparency of the election and safeguarding the integrity of the process,” she said.
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