Bar Association objects to Department of Justice silks proposal

The Bar Association says it is opposed to a proposal by Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng to allow legal officers in her department to attain the title of senior counsel when they are not barristers, saying there is “overwhelming opposition” to the plan among its members, RTHK reports.

Cheng put forward the idea last month saying it troubles her that solicitors among her colleagues are not given the title, even though they do similar types of court work as barristers and “are actually even better than their counterparts.”

But in a statement, the Bar Association says legal officers serve the Department of Justice, while senior counsels (SC) serve their clients and the courts, and this difference is “a striking illustration of the critical importance of the independent Bar to the public interest”.

“The public’s image of the impartiality and independence of SC, combined with their acknowledged legal expertise and judgement, is vital to the public’s perception of good governance. It is their independence that gives meaning and significance to the role of barrister, demanding that they carry out their professional duties without fear or favour,” it says.

The association points to differences such as ethics and conventions, including that barristers have to undergo pupillage for 12 months, while legal officers are “only required to serve a bare minimum of three months.”

The city’s professional body for barristers takes issue with Cheng’s suggestion of giving the SC title to legal officers only while they are employed by the government but then revoking it when they leave, saying this would make it “an inter-departmental ranking, wholly different from the concept and status of SC as a leader of the Hong Kong Bar.”

“The public’s perception of SC is not of a senior government official. Creating a rank which is only valid so long as the holder remains in government service would never confer the same distinction as appointment to silk in the traditional manner”, the statement adds.

The association also says it is wrong to suggest that legal officers are barred from taking silk, saying that under the Legal Practitioners Ordinance, legal officers who have acquired enough advocacy experience can easily transfer to the Bar and “stand on equal terms” with other candidates for SC.

It then goes on to suggest the DOJ instead create a new title for legal officers, such as senior government advocate or senior law advocate.

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