The Rat is the first sign from the 12 animals’ cycle of the Chinese Astrology. As such, 2020 is not only the start of a new decade, it also coincides with the Chinese zodiac symbol of a new beginning. May I take this opportunity to wish our readers success in all their endeavours, reaching yet new heights in the year ahead.
An important event that marks the beginning of the year for the legal sector was the Ceremonial Opening of Legal Year 2020, which was held on 13 January. As I pointed out in my speech at the Ceremony (which is available on the Law Society website), the Ceremonial Opening of the Legal Year serves a very important purpose. It sends a strong message locally and overseas that the Hong Kong judiciary is fiercely and totally independent and its integrity is beyond doubt. Our judges discharge their duties in full accordance with the law, honestly and with integrity, safeguard the law and administer justice without fear or favour, self-interest or deceit.
The Ceremony, along with a series of events jointly hosted by the Law Society and the Bar Association, attracted representatives from 42 law associations in 18 jurisdictions around the world. We were deeply grateful to the eminent guests who honoured us with their presence at this important occasion. Their support in this challenging time is symbolic of the strong solidarity among legal professionals around the world who stand up for each other to speak in one voice to defend the rule of law and judicial independence.
It is interesting to note the similarity of the problems encountered by bar leaders from around the world. Exchanges on how to tackle these challenges are thus indeed relevant to everyone notwithstanding the differences in legal, social and cultural backgrounds.
At one of the events, the Presidents’ Roundtable, in addition to the insightful sharing on what law associations could do to enhance public confidence in the justice system at times of social unrest and conflict, views were also exchanged on an interesting common issue on how the legal professional bodies should engage with their stakeholders including the media. Ms Pinky Anand, Vice President of the Bar Association of India, highlighted that the media is regarded as the fourth pillar of any democracy and an independent media is necessary for keeping a check on the government and its organs. She pointed out, however, that with the increasing media corporatisation and competition, the media may have overstepped its boundaries on occasions by sensationalising issues that are already controversial in nature and pronouncing its own verdict before trial. There is much consensus that media should be reminded to exercise self-restraint to ensure that information allowed to be disseminated to the public will not become tools that distort justice and the truth.
The growing need to separate facts from distortions has given birth to numerous fact-checking internet sites. The President of the American Bar Association (“ABA”), Mrs Judy Martinez, kindly introduced an initiative launched by the ABA called ABA
Legal Fact Check, which uses case and statutory law and other legal precedents to separate legal fact from fiction. It helps the public to verify claims made about the law and legal issues included in the information thrust upon them through different means of media every second of the day.
The need to have a reliable verification tool is very real. For legally related information, the legal professional body of a jurisdiction, which commands credibility in the legal field and is sourced with the diverse legal knowledge and skills of its members, should be most suited to develop such a tool. Hence, the Law Society will be actively looking at the feasibility of launching a similar initiative in Hong Kong.
Going hand in hand with these ideas to prevent distortion of the truth was the interesting discussion on how legal professional bodies could facilitate access to justice.
The Paris Bar has launched the initiative, "Bus de la Solidarité", in which a bus is arranged to take volunteer lawyers to visit four locations on the periphery of Paris to provide free legal consultations to the locals there. Florida Free Legal Answers is another initiative launched by the Florida Bar. It is a virtual legal advice clinic in which qualifying users post their civil legal questions. Volunteer attorneys log in to the website, select questions to answer and provide legal information and advice. Users then receive an email when their questions have a response.
These inspiring exchanges have given us much food for thought and are all very valuable to us in our future planning of the way ahead.