Face to face with Melissa K. Pang

IMMEDIATE PAST PRESIDENT OF THE LAW SOCIETY OF HONG KONG

Melissa Pang, the first female and longest-serving President of The Law Society of Hong Kong has had an eventful tenure, to say the least. During her three terms, the maximum length permitted, Pang has experienced the good, the bad and everything in between and has handled all of it with gravitas and grace.

A TESTING TENURE

A degree in both law and economics set up Pang for a fruitful career as a commercial lawyer, a role she fulfilled through her firm – Pang & Associates. However, her father’s work for The Law Society as a Council Member fueled her desire to contribute more to the profession. “Before my tenure as President, I have been actively involved in the work of The Law Society since mid-1990s. In fact, my father was then a Council member. He was co-opted to the Council in 1994 and stayed on the Council until 1999,” she shares. “I am glad that I was able to continue his vision to contribute to the profession,” she adds.

Since her election as President of The Law Society, Pang has experienced a fair share of triumphs and tribulations. “My tenure as President has been filled with excitement in the sense that we have had a lot of “out of the ordinary” experiences,” she shares. Looking back at her tenure from the beginning, Pang is aware of some key turning points and highlights. “In the first term of my presidency, The Law Society issued two press statements to defend our core values and articulate our position. One was in relation to public discussions on including political or ideological screening in the appointment of judges in June 2018,” Pang explains. “The other one was in July 2018 and related to the unjustified and derogatory comments made against a judge relating to her judgment and sentencing in a criminal case concerning the riot in Mong Kok in 2016,” she adds.

Soon after she was re-elected for a second term in June 2019, the city became embroiled in socio-political disputes. Pang had to take appropriate action yet again and “The Law Society issued ten press statements to condemn all forms of violence, call for respect of the rule of law and judicial independence, and offer possible ways to address the concerns revealed in the social conflicts and to lead the healing process that follows.” Pang vividly remembers a particular incident from that immensely challenging phase that affected her deeply. “Among the incidents, one that struck me was the violent attacks of innocent members of the public in the street on 24 May 2020 and that one of the injured was a member of The Law Society. He was beaten by a group with various hard objects including umbrellas and after the attack, his personal details and his family were published online without consent,” she recalls.

At the heel of the socio-political events, the city was thrown into another crisis with the outbreak of COVID-19 towards the end of January 2020. If that was not sufficient, the National Security Law (NSL) was introduced shortly afterwards. “I was elected President for the third term on 9 June 2020. We were still in the midst of fighting against the pandemic when the controversial National Security Law came into effect on 30 June 2020,” Pang recalls. As the severity of the pandemic became more real, it became apparent that the legal profession was in dire need of support and aid. “To assist our members, The Law Society immediately started working on a range of relief measures including reducing membership and practising certificate fees for 2021 and contribution to the Professional Indemnity Scheme for 2020/2021, waiving CPD course fees for 2020 and CPD/RME obligations for 2019/2020 and distributing free surgical masks and mask keepers to members. Externally, The Law Society lobbied the government for allocation of funding from the Anti-Epidemic Fund to law firms, the Department of Justice, and the Legal Aid Department for speedy settlement of legal fees to practitioners, landlords for reduced office rentals and banks for preferential financial facilities applicable to law firms,” Pang explains. “Further, The Law Society maintained close liaison with the judiciary reflecting the views of members and offering suggestions on how to address issues arising from the general adjournment of court operations during the pandemic. The Law Society was also instrumental in the establishment of the Government’s LAWTECH Fund to assist practitioners to equip themselves with technological tools that enable them to continue practice, notwithstanding the public health condition,” she adds.

With regards to the NSL, Pang and The Law Society’s role was to dispel legal misconceptions and to provide clarity and analysis from a legal perspective. “The overwhelming reactions on the NSL from different quarters including government

authorities from some overseas jurisdictions have their own angles on the legislation, but as an apolitical organisation, The Law Society’s comments which were embodied in our two published submissions in June 2020 focused on the legal perspective,” she shares. “With a diverse membership, we have the benefit of a wide range of perspectives, which provide a more holistic view, and facilitate a more thorough analysis, of difficult and complex issues. To enable our diverse membership to share different views on the NSL, The Law Society organised an online Roundtable Discussion on the NSL with eminent speakers for over 700 participants in July 2020,” she adds.

LESSONS LEARNED

With these unprecedented challenges, there also came new opportunities to rise above them and come out stronger. “I think the public health crisis has brought out the loving care that we have for one another. We have stood united in our fight against the pandemic. What The Law Society has done in the crisis, with the support of our members, is strong evidence of how we can rise above difficulties by helping one another in every possible way,” shares Pang. “Polarisation of views is another big challenge. I am a strong advocate of diversity. I am immensely proud to be part of a team that embraces the values of diversity and inclusion. The Council’s election of myself and the three Vice Presidents who represent diversity in gender, culture, religion ethnicity and legal practice, speaks volumes about the inclusive culture we have at the Council. Nevertheless, as we embrace diversity, we must respect others’ rights in the same way as we expect others to respect ours. To make progress on the basis of such diverse views, it is important that we focus on common grounds, not differences; and solutions, not conflicts,” she adds. On the topic of different viewpoints, Pang is confident that such views can co-exist in harmony thanks to Hong Kong’s firm establishment of the rule of law. “Differences on controversial political and social issues are not insurmountable. With our long-held trust and confidence in the rule of law as the cornerstone of our society, I am confident that everyone can work together to resolve the differences in a lawful, peaceful and constructive manner for the future good of Hong Kong,” she explains.

However, Pang is also concerned about public misunderstandings about what “the rule of law” actually means and their misconceptions about how the legal system and judicial process works. “As can be seen from recent reports on harassment and threats targeted at judicial officers to influence their decision-making process, there was a lack of understanding of the legal system and judicial process,” she shares. “In addition, with technology, all types of information, including unfiltered and wrong information, can now conveniently and easily reach a large part of the population online and some people will base on such wrong information to generate and lead public debates on important issues. We encourage diversity in views and free discussions. But to have meaningful and constructive debates, the views, though different, must all be formed on accurate information, which must be the common starting point,” she adds.

To tackle the spread of false information, which thus lead to baseless and factually incorrect discussions as well as to promote a more accurate understanding of the legal system and judicial process, Pang believes it is one of the duties of The Law Society and its’ members to disseminate proper information. “For example, a proper understanding of the administration of justice and the duties and responsibilities of judges will help the public understand and appreciate more the meaning and value of the rule of law and the importance of judicial independence,” she explains. “The Law Society will be launching a legal fact check webpage. The aim is to make available to the public an easily comprehensible and reliable resource of legally related information,” she adds.

INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS

One particularly note-worthy achievement in Pang’s tenure, as well as The Law Society’s track-record in general, is the long list of countries and jurisdictions it has strong, meaningful relationships with. A mere glance towards the glass showcase in The Law Society office’s meeting room is testimony to this. The showcase, which covers the entire width of the room is full of artifacts, souvenirs and gifts from a diverse range of countries – from Russia to Mongolia, small developing countries to big superpowers. The impressively spectacular collection of tokens from all over the world point to a perhaps less vocalised but firmly established fact – that The Law Society is not just the governing body of the legal profession but internationally, it represents the legal profession of Hong Kong.

Pang and her predecessors have evidently and consistently represented the city’s legal profession with flair and before the pandemic, Pang herself had the opportunity to make some remarkable visits. Her trips to Myanmar, Russia and Mongolia are particularly close to her heart as they all involved constructive meetings with several significant bodies and organisations in those jurisdictions. “The trip to Myanmar was held in July 2012. The purpose of the trip was to explore new business opportunities and to promote the solicitor’s branch of the legal profession in Hong Kong in the global market. Meetings with several organisations were arranged including the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, the Supreme Court of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, the Myanmar Investment Commission, the Myanmar Federation of Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Local Resource Centre (a NGO in Myanmar),” Pang recalls. Before returning to Hong Kong, Pang was honoured with a beautiful gift embodying one of the country’s iconic landmarks. “The landmark as shown on the bronze plate is Shwedagon Pagoda. It is a famous tourist attraction situated on Singuttara Hill in the centre of Yangon, which is also the most sacred Buddhist stupa in Myanmar and one of the most important religious reliquary monuments in the world,” Pang explains.

Her trips to Russia and Mongolia have been similarly gratifying, with the former including, amongst other activities, a forum to promote Hong Kong legal services and to explain how Russian enterprises can set up their regional headquarters or local offices in Hong Kong to oversee their expanding business in Asia. The latter visit included Pang delivering a speech on “Legal Aid in Hong Kong and the Work of the Law Society of Hong Kong in Promoting Access to Justice.” From her trip to Russia, Pang came back with an exquisitely crafted matryoshka doll and from Mongolia, she returned with a traditional Mongolian instrument. Pang believes such iconic, meaningful gifts are profound tokens of the jurisdictions’ desire to maintain a close relationship with Hong Kong’s legal community. “The fact that our counterparts gave to The Law Society as souvenirs items most representative of their culture and nation indicated their good intention to develop a close and long-lasting working relationship with us for the benefit of our respective members,” Pang explains. “For example, we note that the matryoshka doll, or nesting doll, is one of the most quintessential representations of traditional Russian peasant life. Matryoshka is often seen as a symbol of the traditional values of Russian society: respect for the elderly, unity of the extended family, fertility and abundance, and the search for truth and meaning,” she adds. “Similarly, the morin khuur is a traditional Mongolian bowed stringed instrument. It is one of the most important musical instruments of the Mongol people and is considered a symbol of the nation of Mongolia.”

Such meaningful international relationships have served the legal profession well, with The Law Society signing a total of thirty-seven Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) over the years with thirty-five overseas law organisations from twenty-three jurisdictions (not including the Mainland.) These relationships also proved particularly helpful amidst the socio-political tensions in the city. “During my second term, while closely monitoring the public order events and their impact on the rule of law, The Law Society had to ensure that our activities to promote the Hong Kong legal profession internationally could continue with minimum disruption,” shares Pang. “In November 2019, The Law Society jointly organised the LAWASIA Conference with LAWASIA in Hong Kong, which attracted over six hundred participants from thirty jurisdictions around the world, notwithstanding the social unrest at the time. This created an excellent opportunity for Hong Kong to showcase its world-class legal capabilities and enabled local practitioners to expand their global network without having to travel outside Hong Kong,” she adds.

Pang is keen on strengthening and enhancing these relationships over the years, especially as President of LAWASIA from later this year. “I will be taking up presidency in LAWASIA in November 2021 and I will use my best endeavours to continue promoting Hong Kong’s status as a legal service and dispute resolution hub in the international arena,” she shares. “All these international activities helped a lot in promoting Hong Kong’s legal profession to the international community and maintained a closer working relationship among our counterparts in overseas jurisdictions,” she explains.

VISION FOR THE LAW SOCIETY

Pang believes The Law Society has always been and will continue to be fully committed to safeguarding the rule of law in the city, exploring new opportunities, improving practice environment, providing relevant and effective support to members, maintaining the highest professional standards, and giving back to the wider community. “Challenges will continue to come our way and The Law Society will continue to champion these meaningful causes,” she shares. On a political front, as a professional organisation, The Law Society will “continue to maintain its politically neutral stance.”

With regards to the Hong Kong Lawyer, the official monthly publication of The Law Society, Pang views it as an important tool of information within the legal community. “The journal is an important channel for The Law Society to communicate with our members and the readership at large. Its content is informative and relevant to the target readers and very often, a much-valued source of research for legal professionals,” she shares. “The journal has done very well in keeping abreast with the changing needs of the readership and I am confident that the Journal will continue to excel as the official journal of The Law Society,” she adds.

As Pang reflects on her presidency, she finds herself extremely grateful for the support system she had. “I would like to take this opportunity to extend my deepest gratitude to the Council, especially the Vice Presidents, Mr. Amirali Nasir, Mr. Brian Gilchrist and Mr. C M Chan,” she shares. “I would also like to thank Immediate Past President Mr. Thomas So and general members for their selfless and generous contributions to The Law Society’s work over the past years and a big thank you to Ms. Heidi Chu, our Secretary-General, and her team for their dedicated support and assistance during my tenure,” she adds. 

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Immediate Past President Pang and her late father, Mr. John Pang
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Council Members of The Law Society in 1994