Face to Face with Dr. James Ding, Commissioner of Inclusive Dispute Avoidance and Resolution Office

Dr. James Ding is Commissioner of the Inclusive Dispute Avoidance and Resolution (IDAR) Office, at the Department of Justice (DoJ). He spoke to Hong Kong Lawyer in December about his legal background, and work, for which he recently received the Chief Executive’s Commendation for Government/Public Service, and the relationship between the IDAR Office and the city’s legal reputation.

Early Years

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Born and educated in Hong Kong, Dr. James Ding obtained his LL.B with honours and P.C.LL. with distinction from the University of Hong Kong. After which, he received a scholarship to study LL.M. in international economic law at Kyushu University in Japan.

Dr. Ding then returned to Hong Kong and was called to the Bar in 1997. At the same time, he taught law subjects part-time at the University of Hong Kong and the Open University of Hong Kong (now called Hong Kong Metropolitan University).

“I joined the DoJ in 1999. With support from the Department, I completed my (part-time) Ph.D. at the University of Queensland, Australia. My Ph.D. study focused on the subject of international law and cultural heritage conservation and one of my supervising professors was a former director of UNESCO’s Division of Cultural Heritage (whom I met at a conference in Hong Kong and she encouraged me to take up a Ph.D. research on the subject — which I did),” Dr. Ding recalls.

Dr. Ding worked in the International Law Division of the DoJ for about 20 years. He was the head of the Treaties & Law Unit in the International Law Division before moving to the newly established IDAR Office in January 2019 to take up the role as founding commissioner.

“The current Secretary for Justice has set up the IDAR Office under her direct steer to take forward a number of key policy initiatives. Given my relevant background and experience, the Secretary for Justice has picked me for the position,” he says.

“Since IDAR Office would need to coordinate various regional and international initiatives, it would need to be led by a person with broad perspective and diplomatic skills to deal with various stakeholders, including international organisations,” Dr. Ding says, explaining that he first acquired such perspective and skills when he was seconded to the Hague Conference on Private International Law (HCCH) from 2000 to 2001.

“Since then, apart from participating in inter-governmental meetings as a delegate from China or a representative of Hong Kong, China, I have taken up various international roles, for instance, as a member of the Drafting Committee of the 2007 Hague Convention, as an independent expert of the UNESCO-UNIDROIT Expert Committee on State Ownership of Cultural Heritage from 2010-2011, as the Chair of the HCCH Special Commission in 2016 and the Chair of a HCCH Working Group in 2017, as well as the Chair of the APEC Economic Committee since 2019,” Dr. Ding adds.

“Holding such positions would require the ability to deal with experts and officials from different cultural backgrounds and legal traditions who often have divergent and conflicting interests, and has trained and equipped me with the necessary skills to coordinate the diverse nature of work of the IDAR Office,” Dr. Ding explains.

Role of the IDAR Office

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Established in January 2019, one of the IDAR Office’s goals is to streamline a number of Government-led initiatives and promote Hong Kong’s profile in legal and dispute resolution services.

“A key purpose of setting up the IDAR Office is to coordinate various initiatives to seize the opportunities and to address any challenge brought by the Greater Bay Area (GBA) Development Plan and the Belt and Road Initiative, which contribute to the enhancement of Hong Kong’s role as an ideal hub for deal making and a leading centre for international legal and dispute resolution services in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond,” Dr. Ding shares.

Working directly under the Secretary for Justice, the IDAR Office (which includes its Rule of Law Unit) is comprised of two directorate officers, around 20 lawyers, including counsel and legal consultants, and about 10 paralegal or supporting staff.

“We coordinate and work closely with other DoJ colleagues, particularly those in the Arbitration Team, the Mediation Team, the International Organisation and Legal Cooperation Team and the China Law Unit. Our day-to-day work includes coordinating inputs and policy initiatives of DoJ, as well as pursuing and concluding cooperation or partnership arrangements in relation to legal matters with other jurisdictions and international organisations. We also organise, support or encourage important international events and activities in Hong Kong, and raise the international profile of Hong Kong in deal making and dispute resolution through capacity building and promotional activities, both local and abroad. Another area of our day-to-day work is spearheading the development of LawTech as well as promotion of the rule of law,” Dr. Ding says, noting the IDAR Office has made “significant achievements in the past few years”.

In addition to signing cooperation memoranda with Japan, Korea, Thailand and the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) in 2019, DoJ has signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with APEC on capacity building in 2021.

“We also secured an agreement with the Hague Academy of International Law in 2019 to organize regularly an advanced international law course in Hong Kong. We recently entered into arrangements with the Asian Academy of International Law to provide support for internship programmes at the International Court of Justice and the Permanent Court of Arbitration. This year, we launched the secondment programme to various international organisations such as Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), HCCH, UNCITRAL and International Institute for the Unification of Private Law (UNIDROIT),” Dr. Ding adds.

In 2021, important intergovernmental meetings such as the intersessional meeting of the UNCITRAL Working Group III and the 59th Annual Session of the Asian African Legal Consultative Organization (AALCO) were successfully held in Hong Kong, significantly raising the international profile of Hong Kong.

“Regionally, we signed various arrangements with the Mainland covering reciprocal recognition and enforcement of judgments (2019), interim measures in aid of arbitration (2019), supplemental arrangement for recognition and enforcement of arbitral awards (2020) as well as mutual recognition of and assistance to insolvency proceedings (2021), and again this year, we signed records of meeting respectively with the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, Supreme People’s Court and the Ministry of Justice to facilitate mutual exchange and cooperation as well as an arrangement with the Ministry of Commerce and the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council to facilitate communication between Mainland enterprises and the Hong Kong legal profession. In relation to the GBA, we concluded a framework arrangement with the High People’s Court of Guangdong Province to facilitate mutual learning and also established a GBA legal departments joint conference mechanism in 2019. We also facilitated the GBA legal qualification examination to take place in Hong Kong on 31 July by concluding a MoU with the Ministry of Justice. We will continue to seek further liberalization measures in the GBA,” Dr. Ding shares.

In Hong Kong, the IDAR Office has launched the Hong Kong Legal Week (comprising a series of important regional and international events on deal making and dispute resolution), held in the first week of November every year since 2019.

“We have also organized a number of seminars and webinars covering various subjects on deal-making and dispute resolution as well as the relevant development under the GBA. We also managed a special scheme for quarantine exemption for legal and dispute resolution professionals till November this year,” Dr. Ding recalls.

“To facilitate exchange between DoJ and the private sector, we have started a professional exchange program for short-term attachments for both solicitors and barristers in Hong Kong. During the Hong Kong Legal Week 2020, we officially opened the Hong Kong Legal Hub and welcomed the presence of international and regional law related organisations. For example, the DoJ Project Office for Collaboration with UNCITRAL was set up last year and we provided hot desking for LAWASIA this year. We also look forward to welcoming the newly established AALCO Hong Kong Regional Arbitration Centre in the Hong Kong Legal Hub in the near future,” he adds.

With other initiatives, including a LawTech Fund administered by the Law Society of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Bar Association, and the Legal Talent Recruitment Scheme (Trainee Solicitors) administered by the Law Society of Hong Kong as well as a ten-year project on “Vision 2030 for Rule of Law”, the IDAR Office has been busy, despite the fact it is only three years old.

“We have grown so much. I am proud to say that the achievements of the IDAR Office have been recognized by my award of the Chief Executive’s Commendation for Government/Public Service this year, and the honour should go to all staff of the IDAR Office,” Dr. Ding shares.

While Dr. Ding says the question of ‘what role the IDAR Office plays in maintaining Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity’ is too big to answer, he says the DoJ is “certainly one of the most important organs of the Government, which has played a key role in maintaining Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity”.

With a changing geopolitical landscape triggering challenges for Hong Kong, and a global pandemic to contend with, Dr. Ding says the IDAR Office will “continue to step up our efforts on publicity” to promote Hong Kong’s legal and dispute resolution services.

“We have organised a series of webinars and events to present the proper picture to the international community. In particular, we have organised the ‘Why Hong Kong’ webinar series this year in collaboration with Asian Academy of International Law and InvestHK, with support from the legal and dispute resolution profession in Hong Kong including many international law firms. Each webinar, on average, attracted over 500 participants from around 40 jurisdictions, and powerful messages were conveyed to the international community through the webinars,” he recalls.

“To address some of the challenges brought by the pandemic, the IDAR Office is actively taking forward the initiative of LawTech including online dispute resolution (ODR) which is a global trend in light of the pandemic and in anticipation of an upsurge of disputes arising from or relating to the pandemic,” Dr. Ding says.

“Furthermore, we will continue our collaboration with international organisations and attracting international organisations to establish their presence in the Hong Kong Legal Hub. Most recently, LawAsia has established its presence through hot desking last month and we have heard about the establishment of the AALCO Hong Kong Regional Arbitration Centre last week. Their presence in the Hong Kong Legal Hub has signified their continued vote of confidence in Hong Kong, including our laws and legal system,” he adds.

Dispute Resolution

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Dr. Ding says the IDAR Office has supported the dispute resolution sector and wider legal sector in Hong Kong through a series of coordinated initiatives to promote its status as a hub for international legal and dispute resolution services.

“The IDAR Office contributes to the implementation of various initiatives that DoJ has been undertaking in the areas of dispute avoidance and resolution while ensuring that the promotion of Hong Kong’s mediation and arbitration services is conducted in an efficient and effective manner,” Dr. Ding explains.

He points to Hong Kong’s consistently highly ranked position among the top five preferred seats for arbitration globally according to the International Arbitration Surveys conducted by Queen Mary University of London.

“I am glad to say that this year, Hong Kong is ranked by the Surveys as the third most preferred seat for arbitration, surpassing Paris,” Dr. Ding shares.

The city’s cohort of lawyers plays a critical role in supporting that mission, says Dr. Ding.

“Currently, we have about 11,000 practising solicitors, 1,600 practising barristers and over 1,400 registered foreign lawyers as well as thousands of professional arbitrators and mediators in Hong Kong. They can best support the mission of the IDAR Office through voicing out to the international community the very solid foundation of our rule of law and our sophisticated legal system. They could also participate in our work under “Vision 2030 for Rule of Law” in promoting the rule of law, ” he explains.

When asked to look ahead and consider the picture for Hong Kong’s dispute resolution landscape over the next five to ten years, Dr. Ding says, while the future is unknown, there are a range of developments to look forward to.

“I do not have a crystal ball and could not say for sure what will happen in the next 5-10 years, but the National 14th Five-Year Plan could provide us with very good insights. The Central Government has made clear that it supports strengthening Hong Kong as an international legal and dispute resolution services centre in the Asia Pacific,” he says.

“Again, we have found similar support under the GBA Development Plan. With such support, we will certainly move towards that direction and Hong Kong professionals should get prepared, equip themselves and seize the opportunities. In particular, I would urge the professionals here to look beyond the local market and see the markets in the GBA and under the Belt and Road Initiative, for example, they may take the GBA legal qualification examination and also find business opportunities along the Belt and Road. I also encourage people to get equipped and prepared for the greater use of the LawTech since technology will certainly change the current landscape,” Dr. Ding adds. 

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