The legal profession in Hong Kong did not enjoy auspicious beginnings. After seven London barristers turned down the offer to serve as the colony’s first Chief Justice, the eighth choice, John Walter Hulme, landed in 1844 and endured a controversial 15-year tenure marked by debt, illness and quarrels, culminating in a seven-month suspension on charges of drunkenness, of which he was eventually exonerated.
In those days the Supreme Court admitted a motley crew of attorneys and clerks equipped with “vulgar pot house oratory and looser professional principles” according to the colony’s earliest historian, William Tarrant, who was himself admitted to practice with no legal training. Perhaps the most notorious practitioner was one Percy McSwyney – journalist, opium dealer, deputy registrar of the Supreme Court, coroner and temporary attorney – who, according to Tarrant, committed “swindling and bare-faced robbery” on Chinese litigants.
Such individuals and others of less questionable character populate the early pages of A Special Standing in the World: The Faculty of Law at The University of Hong Kong, 1969-2019, published to mark the Faculty’s 50th anniversary. Author Christopher Munn has triumphed in tracing the Faculty’s remarkable journey from humble beginnings to the world- renowned law school it is today and in assessing its exceptional and ongoing impact on Hong Kong society.
The opening two chapters, which detail Hong Kong’s legal landscape from early British rule up to 1969, underscore the obstacles – including antipathy in some government corridors – which needed surmounting to establish the colony’s first law school. Attempts to teach legal topics as part of a general arts degree at HKU in the 1920s fizzled out, with Colonial Office records highlighting concerns that a proposed law school might produce “half- baked lawyers” who would create “political trouble”. There are probably some in our government today who would concur with this view.
The pre-1969 pages are awash with diverse and visionary characters who led the drive for authentic legal education in the colony. Former Royal Marines major Peter Vine, having sat his solicitors’ finals on board his ship in Singapore before serving as a prosecutor in the Hong Kong War Crimes Trials, urged the implementation of law courses in a keynote speech in 1963 while serving as president of the Law Society of Hong Kong. One of the government’s senior lawyers, Registrar General W.K. Thomson, took up the theme, remarking that it was “little short of tragic that the doors to a great profession are virtually closed to a large number of men and women who have not had the good fortune to be born into wealthy homes”.
Such lobbying led in 1964 to a five-year pilot scheme in which the HKU’s Department of Extra-Mural Studies offered part-time evening classes for an external law degree at the University of London. One of the teachers, Professor Dafydd Evans, who arrived on secondment from the London School of Economics, worked assiduously towards the establishment of a more formal legal education institution. He is perhaps the single most important figure in the Faculty of Law’s history, serving as its head and then dean until 1987 and being awarded an OBE in 1989 for his services to legal education.
Thus, the Department of Law was established in 1969 within the Faculty of Social Sciences. Offering a three-year, full-time programme leading to a law degree, it was located off-campus in part of the former Police Married Quarters in Caine Road and began with three staff, a librarian and 40 students. The book paints vivid portraits of those involved and their circumstances. Lecturer Barry Lovegrove, for example, founded the Old China Hand pub in Wanchai and, with three colleagues, played in an environmental-awareness rock band called Junk.
Some lecturers were barely older than their students. One, who joined the staff aged 23, was “constantly being mistaken for a first year student” and was “treated by the more senior students with the distain appropriate for someone of such lowly status”. A rather amusing description, in his own words, from the man we now know as the Honourable Mr Justice Roberto Ribeiro, Permanent Judge of the Court of Final Appeal.
A major focus of the book is the Faculty’s immense contribution to Hong Kong’s politics and constitution before, during and after the Handover. As early as 1970, Australian law graduate Peter Wesley- Smith arrived in town and commenced a detailed study of the 99-year British lease of the New Territories from China in 1898. His doctorate thesis, completed in 1976 and published in 1980 as Unequal Treaty 1898-1997: China, Great Britain and Hong Kong’s New Territories, was much studied by British and Chinese negotiators pre-
1997 – indeed, the Chinese government had it translated for the benefit of their team. Professor Wesley-Smith subsequently joined the Faculty staff and served as dean from 1993-96.
The gradual recruitment of more teachers fluent in Cantonese and/or Putonghua saw the Faculty play a vital role in one of the great projects of the transition, the translation of statute law into Chinese. By 1997 all 600 or so of Hong Kong’s ordinances and over 1,000 pieces of subsidiary legislation had been translated and authenticated, with almost every Chinese-speaking staff member involved at some stage.
The author also describes in detail how members of the Faculty “were involved in the conception, implementation, and promotion” of the Bill of Rights Ordinance, “perhaps the single most important piece of domestic legislation of late colonial Hong Kong”. He notes how they helped draft related legislation and promoted understanding of the Bill of Rights through conferences, lectures and publications. The Basic Law was another source of intense scrutiny. Constitutional expert Yash Ghai, born into an Indian family in Kenya and the first Sir Y.K. Pao Professor of Public Law at HKU, authored Hong Kong’s New Constitutional Order: The Resumption of Chinese Sovereignty and the Basic Law, which became a classic text that was frequently cited in court.
As well, A Special Standing in the World details the formation of Hong Kong’s new Court of Final Appeal and how first Chief Justice Andrew Li and permanent judges Henry Litton, Charles Ching and Kemal Bokhary all had connections with the Faculty. If the book becomes rather weighty through these handover-related sections, it is understandable given the subject matter and momentous events of the time.
The final chapters – or closing submissions, if you like – deal with matters post-1997. These include the 2001 Redmond-Roper Report, a withering critique of Hong Kong’s system of legal education which resulted in radical reforms to the LLB and PCLL courses; the quest for cutting-edge teaching and research, plus productive partnerships with other institutions, that moulded the Faculty into a world-class law school; the relocation to purpose- built Cheng Yu Tung Tower in 2012; and the Faculty’s more recent interactions with law, politics and society, passages given additional resonance in light of recent tumultuous events in our city.
The verdict? Graduates from the HKU’s Faculty of Law now make up more than half of Hong Kong’s Judiciary and legal profession. It is hard to think of another major academic institution worldwide that has had such a significant impact on its immediate community. In writing this authoritative book – which works as historical document, social commentary and simply as an entertaining read – Christopher Munn has done it great justice.