Dennis Kwok, Legislative Council Member of the Legal Functional Constituency, speaks about his transition from law into politics and his role and current priorities as the legislative representative of the legal profession.
Almost one year into his second term as the legal sector’s Legislative Council representative, Mr. Kwok remains energised about pursuing a diverse range of legal and regulatory reforms, impacting everything from Hong Kong’s arbitration regime to its judiciary, all in the name of safeguarding the rule of law and enhancing the ability of Hong Kong lawyers to thrive at home and abroad.
Speaking about his early legal career and transition into politics, Mr. Kwok provides key insights into core values that have driven him to excel as a civic-minded lawyer and legislator.
As Mr. Kwok neared his second year of law school, he had no clear idea of whether he wanted to be a solicitor or a barrister. Given his uncertainty, he decided to apply for a training contract and got an offer from Herbert Smith, which he accepted. He joined the firm’s Hong Kong office after completing his PCLL studies at the University of Hong Kong, where he remained for 5 years.
“This was a good decision because the firm has a phenomenal training programme and a wide range of practice areas for young lawyers to explore. When I speak to law students now, I tell them if they are unsure about whether they would like to be a barrister or solicitor, they should consider joining a solicitors’ firm with a broad range of specialisations. That way, they will have the opportunity to explore different practice areas during their two year training contract. As a trainee, I was able to rotate between the corporate finance, insurance, litigation and arbitration teams, as well as be seconded to London for six months. That experience created a strong foundation upon which I have built my legal and political career. I still draw upon that training in the work I do today,” he said.
Post-qualification, Mr. Kwok practiced as a solicitor for three years with Herbert Smith before transitioning to the Bar in 2006. During this time, he worked on a number of complex commercial disputes and was able to learn from some of the best practitioners in the profession. “As a barrister, this experience has been immensely instructive. I also find it helpful as the legal profession’s legislative representative – I can leverage what I learned about law firms’ internal operations when I am dealing with practice development-related policy issues. This background has certainly given me a better understanding of the legal profession than I otherwise would have had,” he explained.
Mr. Kwok indicated that a key factor in his decision to move to the Bar was his desire to work on a wider range of legal issues such as judicial review and constitutional challenges facing Hong Kong. “I did enjoy working on large commercial cases, but I also started to develop an interest in looking at many other legal problems within the Hong Kong community. This motivated me to take up pro bono legal work – giving free legal advice at a public housing estate. In the end, it led me to question and eventually revise my long term career plan.”
“Being a barrister has given me more freedom over my time, as well as choice over the type of work I take on. It has also allowed me to transition into politics – where I can strike my own balance between maintaining my law practice and fulfilling my public service obligations.”
His initial interest in politics, coupled with the emotive effect of local political stirrings that culminated in the landmark demonstration in the summer of 2003, gave him the desire to go into politics. His pro bono work at the public housing estate also exposed him to a number of influential barristers and then Legislative Councillors, who were instrumental figures in the blossoming civil movement and provided him with an outlet to productively channel his energy. These barristers would go on to form the Civic Party and invite Mr. Kwok to join them as a founding member in 2006.
Learning the Ropes
Mr. Kwok noted that there are two ways to learn first-hand about politics: “You can either join a political party or work for the government. I learned about front-line politics through my involvement as a founding member of the Civic Party. I was involved in a lot of party-related work right from the start – elections and a broad range of policy and political issues. It taught me how to think about and take a stance on different issues, how to present arguments and how to deal with media, among other things. In those early days, I would also go and sit in on Legislative Council proceedings so I could listen to the debates.”
Law and politics are an extension of one another – they are closely related, he continued. “I find that having a background in law has helped me as a legislator. For instance, I draw upon what I learned when presenting arguments in court or handling negotiations. The skills you develop through legal practice are transferrable to politics.”
Legal Functional Constituency
Mr. Kwok indicated that his job as the representative of the legal profession involves two major roles. The first is to defend the rule of law and the Constitution, which entails defending One Country, Two Systems and pushing for the advancement of democracy in Hong Kong. The other involves building on the foundation for the rule of law in Hong Kong: to ensure the independent Judiciary has enough resources and manpower, developing and promoting the Hong Kong legal profession at home and abroad, following through on law reform recommendations, and fighting for the expansion of legal aid and other access to justice issues. Like other legislators, he also works on a wide range of issues from education to environmental protection to the economy.
Defending the Rule of Law
One of the most challenging instances that Mr. Kwok recalls in which he was required to defend the rule of law in Hong Kong occurred shortly after he took office. “I was still a very junior legislator in mid-2014 when the State Council issued a White Paper on the Practice of ‘One Country, Two Systems’ Policy in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. This caused a huge controversy both locally and internationally, and my position required me to take a firm position. With the White Paper garnering mass international media attention, there was a huge amount of pressure – it seemed everyone was interested in what this White Paper meant for Hong Kong and the preservation of the One Country, Two Systems regime,” Mr. Kwok said.
“This was an important and formative experience in my political career. A great deal is expected of us as a profession – namely, that the public expected us to be staunch and vociferous defenders of the rule of law; to firmly stand up for separation of powers and our independent judiciary, which are core values of Hong Kong’s common law system and enable us to maintain our status as one of the top jurisdictions in the world.”
“Some people may ask why making a firm statement to the international community was necessary. The risk, if we did not, is for the White Paper to become our reality in the future. The White Paper’s positions undercut the values upon which we’ve built our community, legal system and Hong Kong as a whole. If we would like to safeguard our way of life and our livelihoods, it becomes incumbent upon us all to send a clear message on our position to Beijing and the international community, and on our desire to make the One Country, Two Systems work the way it was originally designed.”
Developing the Legal Profession
The other core responsibility Mr. Kwok shoulders is developing Hong Kong’s legal services and ensuring laws are kept up-to-date so the legal profession can thrive. “If the legal profession is not healthy and development is not stable, it will impact our ability to maintain the rule of law in Hong Kong. Even if you have the best system in the world, if lawyers are not developing their practices and young lawyers are unable to find jobs, we will enter into a period of decline,” he said.
Reform and New Legislation
Mr. Kwok is working with the Law Society to push for an immediate update and reform of the ‘Scale Rates’ for taxation in the District Court and the High Court which have not been changed since 1997.
He also intends to push for legislation that will facilitate class action lawsuits, the further expansion of legal aid, and on matters such as listing reforms to improve Hong Kong’s financial regulatory regime.
Mr. Kwok remains focused on keeping Hong Kong’s laws up-to-date and ensuring there are sustainable work opportunities for lawyers, especially for new entrants. Key areas of interest include strengthening Hong Kong’s arbitration laws and services, as well as young lawyers’ understanding of the new competition regime.
To bolster Hong Kong as an arbitration hub, Mr. Kwok was instrumental in pushing LegCo to adopt a number of arbitration-related bills, two of which were passed in mid-June. One concerned third party funding and the other concerned the permissibility of resolving intellectual property disputes through arbitration.
“I was the Chairman of the Bills Committee for the third party funding bill and made it a priority to get this law enacted as soon as practicable in a way that the legal profession and the broader community would welcome.”
“I have also been pushing for improvements in the way Hong Kong promotes its arbitration services. For example, to develop the new arbitration centre that would be housed in the former Court of Final Appeal and making sure we will continue to have first class arbitration facilities.”
Mr. Kwok hopes that the new legislation in conjunction with this state-of-the art facility will enable Hong Kong to maintain its edge as an international disputes resolution hub. “In my mind, this can only lead to more work opportunities for the profession.”
Mr. Kwok noted that the recently enacted cross-sector competition regime is a ripe area for young lawyers to specialise. “I have been working with the Competition Commission to set up a work programme for young lawyers to go to the UK and Australia to learn about competition law and other practice areas – that programme is up and running and is open to young solicitors and barristers. To remain competitive and ensure sustainable growth with our legal services industries, we have to continue developing new practice areas that give young lawyers room to enter.”
Mr. Kwok is also intimately involved in pushing for a host of financial regulatory reforms. “It is very important that as an international financial centre, Hong Kong has a first class regulatory system. Whether it is regulating financial services or listed companies, banks or insurance companies – we need to ensure that all are capable of operating in a safe and balanced regulatory environment. By ensuring this, we can make it attractive for international investors to come to Hong Kong.”
Last year LegCo passed the Financial Institution Resolution Ordinance, which will allow regulatory authorities to intervene into the operations of major financial institutions if there is a meltdown. Looking ahead, listing reform is on the horizon. “The Hong Kong Government and regulators need to tackle this regulatory quagmire – listing reform is essential to make Hong Kong the first class international financial centre that we say we are,” he said.
“The recent crash involving more than a dozen listed companies is good evidence of the imminent need for reform and to root out some of the poorly regulated listed companies. I will continue working with the SFC and HKMA to address these issues.”
Class Action Law Suits and Other Law Reforms
Mr. Kwok also briefly noted his efforts to push the Government to enact legislation that would facilitate class action lawsuits. “As I am sure most are aware, the Law Reform Commission has already recommended there be class action lawsuits in Hong Kong. This would enable Hong Kong to follow the development of other jurisdictions and to enable better access to justice.” Other areas of law reform which Mr. Kwok is looking at include corporate rescue and debt restructuring, employment and family law reform.
Access to Justice
The provision of legal aid is crucial in maintaining the rule of law – namely through ensuring access to justice. Mr.Kwok indicated that he has been working with the Department of Legal Aid and the Government to expand legal aid coverage in Hong Kong.
“Supplementary legal aid has been expanded and the financial eligibility limits have also been increased during my time in office, which should enable more people and types of cases to be covered.”
The provision of pro bono legal services is another important aspect of addressing the access to justice issue and has been something else that Mr. Kwok is keen to further develop. “I have been advocating and working to create more pro bono legal services clinics and to expand the duty lawyers’ scheme. This is very important because a lot of people face legal problems and challenges, but lack access to legal advice. This is an area where I hope the Law Society and the Bar Association will do more,” he said.
Mr. Kwok provided a few examples of how both legal regulators could assist. “When lawyers go out to do pro bono work, there is a big question mark as to whether they will be covered by indemnity insurance – this is something both regulators could help to clarify. We should make it easier for a more robust pro bono legal culture to flourish in Hong Kong,” he explained.
While the legal community does have a role to play in addressing the current access to justice issue in Hong Kong, in the end, much of the burden lies with the Government to create a legal system that is more efficient and less expensive and complicated for the average citizen to deal with.
Another important aspect of Mr.Kwok’s role is making sure the Hong Kong judiciary has adequate resources to function effectively in 21st Century Hong Kong. “Sitting judges are already working very hard. My job is to ensure that the yearly budget provides enough resources to enable them to continue running an efficient and modern judiciary.”
As the Deputy Chairman of the Administration of Justice and Legal Services (“AJLS”) Panel, Mr. Kwok engages with the Judiciary to discuss myriad policy issues – such as their efforts to recruit more judges, as well as employment conditions and remuneration packages. The salary of High Court judges has recently been increased to attract more talents to join the Judiciary.
Mr. Kwok is also pushing for the retirement age of judges to be increased. “There’s no reason why a talented and experienced judge should have to retire at 65. For the High Court, we would like to see the retirement age be raised from 65 to 70. For the Court of Final Appeals, we hope the retirement age will be raised from 70 to 75. I’m expecting to see a report from the Judiciary this year on that recommendation. Hopefully this will attract more people to join by enabling practitioners who join the Judiciary to extend the trajectory of their professional careers.”
“In recent years, we have also seen unwarranted attacks on the Judiciary and individual judges. It is part of my duty to defend the Judiciary against such attacks which are completely unacceptable.”
Hopes for the Future
Looking to the future, Mr. Kwok hopes parties from all sides will work together and bring Hong Kong politics back to a more positive direction. “We need to resolve some of the gridlocks in LegCo and ensure that much needed reforms can be enacted. The new Administration must lead in this effort, and they must not push for policies that go against our core values and the Basic Law. The next five to ten years will be an important decade for Hong Kong. We will need to find a way to move forward on issues such as constitutional reform and at the same time preserve our current system and way of life. The last generation was tasked with handling the transition from colonial Hong Kong to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Our generation is tasked with preserving the system – by safeguarding our Constitution and One Country, Two Systems."