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, Robin Peard JP, speaks about his nominations and admissions, while reflecting on his legal career and participation in the work of the Law Society.
Through political revolutions and technological evolutions, Mr.Peard’s provision of highly-regarded legal services and contributions to Hong Kong’s legal community have solidified his place among local legal titans. His career, which spans over a half century, has gone from strength to strength and is bedecked with a host of accolades that range from being the first practising solicitor to be appointed as a Deputy Judge of the High Court in 1996 to spearheading the development and overhaul of Hong Kong’s arbitration regime.
Reflecting on his appointment by the Council to the Roll of Honour, Mr. Peard said “coming at the end of my legal career, this means a great deal to me”.
While Mr. Peard is a fourth generation lawyer in his family, he said that his decision to pursue a career in law could more aptly be described as springing from a “mere coincidence” rather than emanating from a thoughtfully orchestrated plan. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I finished my schooling. However, being from a family of lawyers, it was a foregone conclusion that someone would suggest I try the law. It seemed as secure a career option as any other, so that is what I did,” he said.
He also describes his decision to move to Hong Kong as similarly incidental. “I had just finished articling at an English solicitors firm in the country, and I was looking for a new adventure. I had been bitten by the travel bug, so I decided to look abroad. It was 1964, so my choices were quite limited. Pursuing work abroad was not common in those days. However, I came upon two vacancies – one in Hong Kong and the other in Lisbon. The reason for the opening in Lisbon was due to the UK and Portugal’s longstanding economic ties; someone had opened an English law firm in Lisbon to assist clients with operations straddling those two economies. As you may have surmised, I chose the job in Hong Kong, joining George Stevenson at Stewart & Co., and that is how my career as a lawyer in Hong Kong began.”
Completely Different Market
In discussing his arrival in Hong Kong in 1965, Mr. Peard noted that the legal profession was completely different than it is today. “The market was relatively small. There were probably around 100 solicitors and 40 barristers. The solicitors firms would basically take any work that came in the door. Also present in the market was a system of interpreters, who would introduce clients to firms for a commission, but that system has long since been abolished. The firm I joined when I arrived was very small, so I did everything you could think of in terms of legal work.”
Mr. Peard believes that acquiring such broad base experience early in his career was a boon, but noted that this is probably not possible in the current market for junior lawyers, who must specialise if they want to join a substantial firm.
Politically and economically, 1965 to 1967 were trying times in Hong Kong – so much so that Mr. Peard decided to leave for a brief stint.
“There was the Cultural Revolution in China. Then there was a big banking crisis. So at the end of 1967, I moved to Bangkok to work at a business advisory firm with Charles Kirkwood, an American lawyer whom I met in Hong Kong. I was unable to work as a lawyer during that period, as only Thai nationals were allowed to practice law. As such, Charles and I worked as business advisors alongside a few Thai lawyers at the firm. After a few years, I briefly returned to London. Then in 1971, I was drawn back to Hong Kong to work with Brutton & Stewart, which through a series of amalgamations and takeovers, merged with Johnson Stokes & Master and then became Mayer Brown JSM.”
As a solicitor, Mr. Peard’s principal areas of practice were commercial and construction litigation, as well as litigation involving the shipping and insurance fields. Of the many cases he tried as a litigator, he noted two that are of particular significance to him.
The first interesting case was one he handled in 1971 soon after returning to Hong Kong. It involved a dispute over the ownership of a property in Kowloon – the disputed property was a whole city block that was occupied by a school; at the time, it had high real estate value, he explained. “Our client was in his 80s and he had to give evidence at the trial. He was cross-examined for two days. It was amazing to watch. At the age of 80, his memory of what had happened in the 1930s, which is what was relevant, was spot on. Although, we didn’t win every case, we managed to win that one.”
The other case he described as perhaps the biggest piece of civil litigation in which he was involved in his career. In this case, he advised the Hong Kong Government in a major dispute arising from the construction of Tin Shui Wai New Town. “In those days, that area in New Territories consisted of fish ponds,” he said.
To provide some context, Mr. Peard explained that during that period, the on-going negotiations between the PRC and the British Government were creating much uncertainty about the future of Hong Kong. In an attempt to encourage investors to come to the city, the Hong Kong Government entered into an agreement with two conglomerates in the early 1980s to develop Tin Shui Wai.
“Somewhere along the way, the project went wrong,” he explained. “It took the Government a very long time to fill the fish ponds and turn the area into developable land. They attempted to complete this filling operation by pumping marine sand across some hills into the fish ponds, but the whole process took much longer than initially anticipated. The conglomerates got fed up with the delays and sued the Government.”
“At trial, the case centred on whether the Government was using its ‘best endeavours’ to produce this land. It was a tremendously heavy documents case – we had a team of about four or five lawyers who were exclusively tasked with looking through boxes upon boxes of discovery that filled an entire room. This dispute went on for about five years. It was one of the longest civil trials in Hong Kong, but fortunately, the Government won in the end. The judge found that the Government’s ‘best endeavours’ are rather different from commercial ‘best endeavours’ given that the Government also has public policy to think of and other people’s interests to deal with. As such, the judge found that what the Government did was reasonable under the circumstances.”
In addition to handling litigation, Mr. Peard is also a chartered arbitrator, a Fellow of the Hong Kong Institute of Arbitrators, as well as a Fellow of the Singapore Institute of Arbitrators, and has extensive experience in arbitration proceedings. Over the past 20 years, he has been involved as arbitrator in more than 400 domestic and international arbitrations and has issued more than 200 awards.
Throughout his career, Mr. Peard has made substantial contributions in the area of arbitration in Hong Kong. He is a past chairman of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators (East Asia Branch). He has also been a member of the Council of the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre since its founding in 1985 and was previously its vice-chairman. He was closely involved in the comprehensive reform of the previous arbitration regime in Hong Kong, particularly in the drafting and passing of the new Arbitration Ordinance in 2010. The reform in the arbitration legislation is an important step taken in Hong Kong to enhance Hong Kong’s standing as a major centre for international arbitration in Asia. The new Arbitration Ordinance harmonised the arbitration law in Hong Kong in line with established international norms and made it more user-friendly and attractive for international arbitrations.
Mr. Peard noted that Hong Kong has come a long way since the time he first started practising with respect to the types of disputes it attracts as a major dispute resolution hub. He indicated that very recently he was involved in an international arbitration that exemplifies the type of arbitral disputes that are now being dealt with in Hong Kong. The parties were from Mainland China and Malaysia and they had chosen Hong Kong to be the arbitral seat. The dispute involved a pharmaceutical company in Mainland China, but, other than the parties agreeing to settle their disputes by arbitration in Hong Kong, there was no other Hong Kong connection. “This was a very big investment for the Malaysians in a state-owned enterprise, which went badly wrong. Eventually, the Malaysian party sued the Mainland party and arbitration in Hong Kong commenced. We had three arbitrators – one was a Malaysian lawyer, the other was a Mainland lawyer from Shanghai and I was the chairman,” Mr. Peard said.
In addressing the well-worn question of whether Singapore or Hong Kong is the more attractive disputes resolution hub, Mr. Peard said that he thinks the two jurisdictions are complementary, as opposed to antagonistic. “There may be some antagonistic feelings, but Singapore is really looking at dealing with disputes from India, Malaysia and Indonesia, in particular; whereas Hong Kong is more focused on Mainland China, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines. So you have a territorial distinction between the two.”
“The problem that Hong Kong has always suffered from is that the people who are deciding where to have the seat of arbitration often mistakenly think that Hong Kong is a part of the legal system of Mainland China and then do not choose Hong Kong as a seat. Since before 1997, we have been trying to preach the gospel of Hong Kong, so to speak, and educate others that in terms of arbitration, the law is completely different and independent of that in Mainland China.”
Commitment to Public Service
In addition to the contributions Mr. Peard has made to the legal and arbitration field, he has served the Hong Kong community in a number of other ways.
For instance, Mr. Peard actively participates in the Professional Indemnity Scheme (“PIS”)-related work of the Law Society. He served on the PIS Claims Committee from 1987 to 1997, and was the chairman of that committee for most of that period. He also chaired the Professional Indemnity Advisory Committee from 1999 to 2015, and has since remained as its member until now. He was also a member of the PIS Panel Solicitors Selection Board from 1993 to 1997.
Mr. Peard has also been a Member of the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal Panel, helping to maintain the standard of the legal profession for the interest of the general public. He was appointed the Deputy Tribunal Convenor for six years, from 2005 to 2011. To enhance the interest and understanding of panel members and clerks as well as other solicitors on the work of the Disciplinary Tribunal, he also assisted as a speaker and a moderator at seminars on a number of occasions.
Mr. Peard thinks the Disciplinary Tribunal’s work is a very important check on lawyers, who set their own professional standards. “While it is necessary to have some lawyers sitting on the Tribunal, particularly the Chairman, to ensure the case is handled fairly, it is also immensely valuable to have lay members on the Panel as well, so it’s not just lawyers disciplining other lawyers.”
Additionally, he has contributed his time as the chairman of the Corruption Prevention Advisory Committee and as the chairman of the Building Appeal Tribunal respectively.
Mr. Peard indicated that he was pleased to see the recent passage of Third-Party Funding legislation by the Legislative Council, providing for the provision of third-party funding for arbitrations and mediations in Hong Kong. He hopes this will increase access to justice by enabling parties that may otherwise not attempt to enforce their legal rights due to financial limitations with adequate funds to do so. In the not-too-distant future, he hopes to see the Government expand the scope of the bill to permit third-party funding in the litigation context.
Looking ahead, Mr. Peard hopes to see the judiciary increase the amounts used in the assessment and recovery of legal costs in Hong Kong. “The allowable costs by the court are very low and have not been raised for over 10 years. As a result, the scale is not aligned with the current economic reality in Hong Kong as it relates to costs litigants incur to procure legal counsel. If the recoverable costs were increased, that would not only address issues of fairness, but it would also make it more likely for cases to settle because the amount at stake would go up if you fear that substantial costs will be awarded against you.”