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Hong Kong legal landscape update from President Stuart Webb

Hong Kong legal landscape update from President Stuart Webb

By Stuart Webb

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Hong Kong is a significant market for Australian legal services. Many firms have offices and partnerships in the city, and represent significant client interests in the broader Greater Bay Area. Most firms would be receiving ongoing updates regarding the operations of their interests in Hong Kong. This information is intended to provide supplementary information for your assistance. 
 
I recently represented the LIV at the 32nd LawAsia Conference in Hong Kong. It was an opportunity to support the development of the rule of law in our region and learn more about the circumstances facing Hong Kong. I attended exclusive events where detailed insights into the present difficulties were provided.

The Acting Chief Executive of Hong Kong SAR stated that Hong Kong had plans to develop its legal services, including encouraging legal bodies to headquarter themselves in Hong Kong; establish Hong Kong as a significant location for ADR work, in particular for the Belt and Road initiatives; and to establish a ‘cross border’ opportunity in the Greater Bay Area. He stated that there was a ‘Vision 2030’ for the rule of law in HK. He called for an end to violence and the opening of channels of communication to the leaders of the protest movement.

The Secretary of Justice spoke about the three elements to law and order in Hong Kong: the judiciary, the legal profession and the citizens. Each had obligations to the rule of law. She stated that she fervently believed in the independence of the judiciary and the prosecution aspect of her Ministry.

In my discussions with senior legal practitioners, there was a consensus that the present difficulties were not going to end soon. Deep seated issues exist in Hong Kong which have not been effectively addressed. These included increasing wealth gaps, challenges around land sale and access to housing, and opportunities for personal development for the young members of society. One hundred and fifty low-skilled mainlanders are given permanent residence daily, totalling one million in the past 10 years - 20% of the population. This has made life more difficult at the lower socio-economic levels for longstanding HK residents.

The cycle of violence is escalating. There is limited recognised leadership on behalf the protesters. Those who have been identified have either fled or been arrested, including on charges of riot, which carry potential jail terms of three years.  Who will represent the disaffected interests is not clear. Local Government elections at the end of November will provide a test for authorities, with anti-mainland candidates likely to be well-supported.

The Law Society of Hong Kong is seeking to retain a middle ground in these difficult circumstances, and is willing to give advice to those who seek their counsel.

Local lawyers expressed concern about the ability to attract and retain foreign lawyers in the current environment. Hong Kong is not attractive for business or professionals and this may have inflationary effects on salaries.

I am happy to discuss this report with you.

Stuart Webb visited Hong Kong for the LawAsia conference 6-8 November 2019


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