Chairman's Update - 14 January 2016

15 January 2016

The start of 2016 was marked by troubling news from China and Hong Kong concerning the rule of law. The Financial Times reported on 7 January 2016 that the billionaire founder and chairman of Metersbonwe, described as one of China's best-known fashion brands, had gone missing, with reports suggesting he was caught up in China's anti-corruption campaign.

A week later, on 14 January 2016, the Global Legal Post reported that four human rights advocates were formally arrested by the Chinese police on charges of subverting state power.

These stories followed earlier reports before Christmas on other business men who had apparently disappeared for a number of days. Added to this the last few days have seen reports detailing the apparent disappearance of Hong Kong book publishers, one of whom is said to be a British passport holder.

Reuters reported on 10 January 2016 that thousands had taken to the streets in Hong Kong demanding to know the whereabouts of five missing people linked to a local publisher of books that criticised Beijing's leadership.

These reports are very worrying. In an article in the Diplomat, Professor Tsang, Professor of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham, identified that Hong Kong is a major financial centre that services the world economy, largely because it enjoys judicial independence and a high degree of autonomy under the "one country, two systems" framework. Should this framework be undermined, he warns, Hong Kong as we know it will be no more.

Why is this of interest to us? As lawyers we should be interested in threats to the rule of law, wherever they arise. The Bar Human Rights Committee and the Bar Council's Rule of Law Panel both do much important pro bono work in this area.

We should also be interested because in a world where so much trade is inter-related, developments in other major international financial centres can impact our economy.

But, with an eye on matters closer to home, the more extreme challenges faced by some jurisdictions also serve as a useful reminder to us of the challenges which all countries and societies face in maintaining the rule of law.

Put differently, it is too easy for our society to take the rule of law for granted. Civil obedience and business development today is partly the result of the legal system which this country benefits from, and the trust which most citizens place in it, even after the aggressive cuts to social welfare legal aid imposed by LASPO.

The recent stories from China are a timely reminder.

On the domestic front the challenges are different. One aspect of this is the Bar Council's campaign for legal professional privilege to receive statutory protection in the Investigatory Powers Bill.

Guaranteeing the confidentiality of conversations between clients, including prisoners and their lawyers, is a vital ingredient to ensuring a fair trial. In the absence of such a guarantee, those accused of crimes may be deterred from consulting, or fully consulting, with their lawyers.

Another aspect is highlighting the impact that the LASPO cuts have had on normal citizens and their ability to seek redress through the courts, which the Bar Council will be addressing by carrying out a three year review of LASPO. Yet another is continuing to highlight the need for a strong and independent criminal bar in the future, and the very real challenges presented by cuts to legal aid.

As lawyers, and as barristers, we need to remind society of why we matter, and that our justice system is precious, and something for which Government, and society, must be prepared to pay for.

Chantal-Aimée Doerries QC

Chairman of the Bar