The Hong Kong Law Society maintains a Roll of Honour, which consists of the names of solicitors who have distinguished themselves through their service to the Law Society or its Council, by their contributions to the development of the legal profession in Hong Kong or to the practice of law. To be nominated for admission, a three-quarters majority of the Council must agree that the contributions of the solicitor warrant special recognition.
This year’s honouree, Anna Wu, Chairperson of the Competition Commission, speaks about her nominations and admissions, while reflecting on her legal career and participation in the work of the Law Society.
Ms. Wu describes her decision to pursue a career in law as a “default choice”, but nothing about her distinguished career suggests she has adopted a “default” mode of thinking since. From building a successful private practice to serving as a member of the Legislative Council to fighting for the enactment of a variety of fair play laws in Hong Kong, Ms. Wu has been a stalwart and forward-thinking advocate for change.
While reflecting on her appointment by the Council to the Roll of Honour, Ms. Wu said “I was very touched and humbled by the honour. Being in public service and public law can be quite lonely and often I felt I was away from the mainstream practice of law. I did not expect to receive the honour but it was extremely gratifying to be counted and embraced by my professional peers as one of their own.”
“Law was an incidental profession for me. When I entered University to study law, it was my default choice after being advised by wiser friends that I would not be able to earn a living with an anthropology specialisation. However, once there, I found myself constantly running away from classes. It felt like pure drudgery, as the curriculum was compartmentalised and neither experiential nor solution-based.”
In an attempt to escape law, Ms. Wu recalled writing to the United Nations to ask for any job that may be available to her upon graduating. “To their credit, someone took the trouble of responding to tell me that I would need a second degree or two years of working experience to even be considered. It was a rude awakening that what I had was not good enough, but, luckily, it motivated me to finish my legal studies and qualify as a lawyer,” she said.
“When I started working as a practitioner, my attitude about the law changed. I was able to see, in a way that was obscured to me as a student, that it could be used to solve problems and construct solutions,” she explained.
“By assisting clients, I learned that the law wasn’t merely a compilation of dead rules. That my work could have an indelible impact on a client’s life made a great impression on me. Seeing these additional layers of the law – that it was all interrelated and not compartmentalised – added the context I needed to fully appreciate its utility and its potential. It was then that the law came alive for me.”
Seeing the Bigger Picture
Ms. Wu started her career in private practice, specialising in intellectual property law. “While it was somewhat outside of mainstream work, I enjoyed it. I was in touch with creative people and innovative products: music, literary work, fashion, toys, games, patented medicine, really any item that came my way. I spent time working out what the product was and how best to protect the original thinking behind it – the intangible rights and their manifestations. I was also involved with the commercial side of IP, franchising, licensing, distribution, transfer of rights, valuations, and the like, as well as the litigation side involving many applications for interlocutory injunction trying to stop infringement quickly.”
From there, she transitioned to a general litigation practice because she felt that as a young lawyer, she needed to know basic litigation skills. Ms. Wu recalled working on a precedent-setting case that centred on whether someone not wearing a seat belt had contributed to the injury. “I acted for an insurance company. Wearing a seat belt was a recommended practice under the highway code and the argument was whether on policy ground the seat belt should have been worn. The insurance company won on the basis that public policy and safety would be defeated by not wearing one. There was a reduction in damages. The law was subsequently changed to require the wearing of seat belts.”
“Through this case, I learned that in the application of the law, one must look at the purposefulness of a law. Public policy and social context can both influence the outcome of a court case and the law does not function in a vacuum.”
An Unexpected Appointment
Ms. Wu indicated that it was in the run up to 1997 that she pursued public interest law in earnest. As a pro-democracy supporter, she turned her unexpected appointment to the Legislative Council into an opportunity to not only push for the most representative form of government she could vote for, but also for the enactment of equal opportunities laws, aimed at eradicating discrimination in both the public and the private sector. “This appointment, at which I initially balked, gave me the chance to initiate a private member’s bill for equal opportunities. It was the first private member’s bill that covered a whole area of policy. Through pursuing this, I was able to make law as a member of the legislative body and create solutions to deal with human conflicts,” she said.
Later, as the Chairperson of the Equal Opportunities Commission (“EOC”), Ms. Wu worked to change the business community’s mindset about equal opportunities laws, explaining the benefits of compliance in the language of economics. As the Chair of the Operations Review Committee of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (“ICAC”), she battled the culture of corruption, then endemic in Hong Kong’s public sector. Now, as the Chairperson of the Competition Commission (the “Commission”), she is involved with a brand new area of law to create a competitive environment in Hong Kong.
“These areas of law and many others involve social and economic policies. The process of understanding the value and the philosophy behind each piece of legislation continues to draw me to work within the legal sphere and not desert it,” she said.
Natural & Progressive Process
In speaking about her transition from the private to the public sector, Ms. Wu said it was a natural and progressive process in that she had always been interested in the political and social issues that affect the wider community. “I was educated in a Catholic high school for girls. We were taught to go beyond the school and learn about our community – the value of community service and of taking charge of our lives and to solve problems. During my high school days, together with another school mate, we drafted the constitution for our student council and established probably the first one in Hong Kong high schools. We were allowed to run our own lives and to solve our problems. Looking back this was wonderful training, priming me from an early age for the subsequent roles I would assume.”
Ms. Wu’s varied public service work has all involved level playing field issues for the private and public sector, business and individuals. “It is a rare privilege to have gone through such a broad range of level playing issues and all associated with fundamental qualities of the rule of law – that everyone is equal before the law and should be given equal treatment and fair opportunity.”
“A system based on meritocracy that provides equal opportunity for all is essential to community advancement and individual development. It has economic value, as well.”
Of Ms. Wu’s many professional successes, she indicated that one of her proudest moments involved the successful outcome of a case brought by the EOC against the Government on the discriminatory treatment of girls when entering high schools. “Our best girls were systematically subject to adverse treatment on admission to high schools and their exam scores were effectively lowered. Education is the first port of call for individual development. How could we possibly allow this to continue in a world that has systematically discriminated against women? I am proud that this created a landmark case both in and outside of Hong Kong. It involved an application for judicial review brought in the name of the EOC and not the victims’ individually. A declaratory order of discrimination was sought from the court because it would be hopelessly difficult and time consuming to take thousands or even hundreds of cases to court in the name of the individuals affected. It is also a poignant example of why it makes sense to support enactment for class actions.”
As the founding Chair of the Commission, Ms. Wu indicated that she is glad to see a law that provides the Commission with a full range of enforcement powers and panoply of sanctions to deter anticompetitive conduct. “I hope that what I am able to do in this role will set the tone for the work of the Commission well into the future.”1
“What I have learned over the course of my career, especially on the consumer protection front, is that it can take Government a long time to come around. For those in the same boat fighting for change, don’t give up. Don’t be shy about your views. If you have to offend someone to defend them, do not duck it. Also, I have a noted preference for public service. I strongly believe that if you are in a position to influence the outcome on an important issue by accepting public appointment, then you should accept and serve and not worry about attacks or criticisms of you working within the system,” she said.
In discussing important developments over the course of her career, Ms. Wu said that there is no doubt in her mind that the concept of One Country, Two Systems has had a profound influence on the Hong Kong legal system and on her – personally and professionally.
“It is by definition conflicting and we do not have a constitutional court to help us arbitrate any difference. Our courts have remained independent and functioned well. We need though to be vigilant about any potential or perception of encroachment. If we put One Country on one side of the see-saw and Two Systems on the other, any ups or downs on one side will affect the other in the opposite way. To maintain the see-saw close to the middle and be balanced is exceptionally difficult because there is no precedent to go by.”
2017-06-25“Don't cheat. Compete” Secondary Schools Advocacy Contest Award Ceremony.
2016-12-14 Press Conference - First Anniversary of Full Commencement of Competition Ordinance.
Signing of MOU with Canadian Competition Bureau’s Commissioner Mr John Pecman in Paris.
2015-11-30 Asian Competition Forum.
2016-05-26 “Fighting bid-rigging Cartels” Campaign Kick-off Ceremony.
1 See also, Face to Face with Anna Wu, Chairman of the Competition Commission, Hong Kong Lawyer (December 2014).