Currently, there are about 9,000 solicitors holding a practising certificate. Out of them, about 50 percent are holding a practising certificate that does not have any prohibition against the holder practising as a solicitor on his own account or in partnership (“unconditional practising certificate (UPC)”).
Section 6(6) of the Legal Practitioners Ordinance (Cap. 159) (the “Ordinance”) provides that a solicitor must satisfy the Council that since being admitted as a solicitor, he has been bona fide employed in the practice of a solicitor in Hong Kong for at least two years before he can practise as a solicitor on his own account or in partnership. The two-year period must be a continuous period although it does not have to be immediately preceding an application for a UPC. The application is by way of a statutory declaration on the essential factual information that supports the fulfillment of the requirement under s. 6(6) of the Ordinance.
Out of the practising certificate holders, about 88 percent (7,892 solicitors) have been admitted for two years or more. However, only 50 percent (4,505 solicitors) are holding a UPC. Although it is obvious that not necessarily all of the remaining 38 percent (3,387 solicitors) have been in bona fide employment in a law firm for two years as required under s. 6(6), it can be safely assumed that there are still many practitioners who are entitled to a UPC but have not taken steps to apply for one.
For those who do not meet the requirement under s. 6(6) but who have acquired substantial experience in the law either in Hong Kong or elsewhere, they may apply to the Council for a reduction or waiver of the two-year period. There are detailed guidelines as to the amount of reduction that would be allowed based on the number of years of experience that an applicant has accumulated as an in-house solicitor in commerce or in government, or as a legal practitioner practising overseas in common law or non-common law jurisdictions. The guidelines are available on the Law Society website (Law Society Circulars 12-539 and 12-540).
With a UPC, a solicitor will have more choices in his practice. Not only can he become a partner or proprietor of a law firm, he can also qualify as a civil celebrant of marriages provided he has been in practice for seven years (Schedule 4 of the Marriage Ordinance (Cap. 181)). It is always good to be prepared for opportunities so that when they come along, one will be ready to grasp them. The application for a UPC is a simple procedure. It is advisable to spare some time to complete this procedure as soon as the statutory condition is fulfilled.
Members may have been aware that s. 6(6) of the Ordinance has been amended to include a requirement on the completion of an approved practice management course prior to an application for a UPC. This legislative amendment has not come into operation and no commencement date has been fixed yet. The Law Society is now working on the practice management course and other implementation details. In the meantime, applications for a UPC will be processed in accordance with the current legislation.