Re Francesca Lee  HKCFI 3335 (12 November 2021) is another unsuccessful application to use video conferencing facilities for admission and enrolment as a solicitor in Hong Kong. In this case, the applicant applied for her admission hearing to be held remotely so that certain of her family members and friends could attend virtually from abroad, although she intended to attend in person. The admission hearing is apparently due to be heard on Saturday, 5 February 2022. The formal application for the admission to be conducted by remote hearing was made on or about 1 November 2021.
The case comes on the back of Re So Chin Wang  2 HKLRD 169, in which an application to attend a hearing for admission as a solicitor by remote hearing was refused by the court. Without deciding whether personal attendance at an admission hearing to take the oath and sign the roll of solicitors are merely matters of formality from which exemption could be granted, the court held that any such exemption should only be granted on special grounds and for cogent reasons – which on the facts did not include the applicant’s difficulty in travelling from London to Hong Kong for his admission hearing because of COVID-19 travel and quarantine restrictions.
Interestingly, the applicant’s legal representatives in Re Francesca Lee appear to have advanced the application on the basis that the court should (as part of its case management responsibilities) consider putting in place recommended procedures to enable applications for admission to be conducted remotely, despite an applicant being located overseas. The court declined to give any such guidance and made a number of related observations.
- Given the local circumstances of Hong Kong, it did not appear unreasonable to require an applicant for admission as a solicitor to be physically present in court.
- Whether an applicant’s family members or friends (or persons generally) should be allowed to attend using video conferencing facilities is a matter that required more thought and consultation.
- Comparisons with how lawyers are admitted in other jurisdictions (such as England & Wales) are not necessarily helpful.
- The use of remote hearings for court applications varied between different jurisdictions. Their use in Hong Kong is a matter to be kept under general review in light of the prevailing circumstances (including, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic).
Progress with allowing admissions by remote hearing or (for example) by paper applications will need agreement with various stakeholders, not least the judiciary and the High Court Registrar. As Re Francesca Lee makes clear, the conduct of hearings for admission is a matter for the case management discretion of the court. As things stand, the obstacles to a change in practice appear to be the following.
- Pursuant to Rule 6 of the Admission and Registration Rules (“Oath on admission as solicitor”) an applicant cannot be admitted unless he or she has taken the oath or affirmation set out in Rule 6. The oath or affirmation must be taken before being admitted and the court’s practice is for this to be done in person at the admission hearing.
- Pursuant to section 5 of the Legal Practitioners Ordinance (Cap. 159) the Registrar of the High Court keeps a roll of all solicitors admitted in Hong Kong and physically enters their names on the roll. Applicants who are admitted as solicitors are required to sign the roll and the court’s practice is for this to be done in person at the admission hearing.
There is also the point that if the court exercises its case management powers to allow more flexibility as regards admission hearings, or a way can be found to change the relevant admission and registration rules, this should (over time) be of considerable benefit to many applicants and their employers. With the public interest in mind, any change of practice or proposals would still require an applicant to demonstrate that they are fit and proper to be admitted as a solicitor in Hong Kong.