After more than 14 years of lobbying by the Law Society, the Legal Practitioners (Amendment) Bill was passed by the Legislative Council (LegCo) on 20 January 2010, granting higher rights of audience (HRA) to solicitors before the High Court and the Court of Final Appeal in civil and/or criminal proceedings. Solicitors who gain accreditation will be known as ‘solicitor advocates’.
- In March 1995, the Attorney General’s Chambers, in its Consultation Paper on Legal Services, recommended the extension of solicitors’ rights of audience.
- In 1996, the Administration had considered moving Committee Stage Amendments to the Legal Services Legislation (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill 1996 to extend the rights of audience of solicitors. However, the President of LegCo ruled that the amendments exceeded the scope of the Bill and could not be proposed.
- In October 2007, the Chief Justice convened a Working Party on Solicitors’ Rights of Audience, which published its Final Report and recommended that legislation should be enacted to provide the necessary framework for the granting of HRA to solicitors. The Chief Justice accepted the recommendations and requested the Administration to take forward the matter by legislation.
The Higher Rights Assessment Board
The new legislation will establish an Assessment Board which will determine applications by solicitors for HRA and act as the gate keeper of the standard of advocacy before the courts. It will be comprised of members appointed by the Chief Justice, former judges, members of the legal profession, an officer from the Department of Justice and a lay member.
The Assessment Board will make rules to deal with matters including any courses, training, assessments or examinations required to be completed or passed by an applicant for HRA.
Application and eligibility requirements
A solicitor who satisfies the eligibility requirements may apply to the Assessment Board for HRA for civil proceedings and/or criminal proceedings. An applicant must have at least five years’ post-qualification experience, at least two years of which, must have been in Hong Kong during the period of seven years immediately before the date of application. The applicant must also comply with other requirements to be prescribed by the Assessment Board. In making an assessment, the Assessment Board must be satisfied that the applicant has acquired sufficient litigation experience and, in all other respects, is a suitable person to be granted HRA. If the Assessment Board proposes to reject an application, the applicant will be given an opportunity to make representation.
The Council of the Law Society must issue a certificate in respect of HRA to any successful applicant and maintain a public register of those who are granted certificates which will be available for public inspection.
The Council is empowered to issue a Code of Conduct for solicitor advocates in consultation with the Chief Justice and the Council of the Bar Association. The Law Society has already circulated a draft Code based on the Code issued by the Solicitors Regulation Authority in England and Wales.
Commencement of the Ordinance
On the assumption that the legislation will be brought into force in about six months after the enactment, the Judiciary has advised that the Assessment Board will become operational within one month thereafter. The Law Society envisages that the Assessment Board will be ready to invite applications from solicitors in about 12 months’ time.