Following is the speech by the Secretary for Justice, Ms Elsie Leung at the Opening of the Legal Year today (January 15):
Chief Justice, Ladies and Gentlemen,
In recent years, my department has given priority to issues relating to Reunification. Most of those issues have now been satisfactorily resolved, and a smooth transition of the legal system achieved. It is now time to look ahead.
In the years to come, the environment in which lawyers operate will undergo enormous change. One of the driving forces behind this change is the rapid advance in information technology. The importance of electronic transactions generally has already been reflected in the Electronic Transactions Ordinance, which was enacted and brought into operation last year.
So far as the legal profession is concerned, information technology will benefit practitioners in many ways. In a few years' time, video conferencing with overseas clients and colleagues from our desktops will be commonplace. Lawyers based in different locations will work in 'virtual legal teams' on automated document assembly, using simple point-and-click and voice-activated drafting facilities. Legal research will be aided by vast virtual libraries. Evidence in court will commonly be presented on computer screens, and there will be electronic filing of court documents.
The provision of legal services over the Internet is likely to be the main growth area in the law. There is a strong possibility that lawyers will soon lose their monopoly on the provision of legal information, as legal resources become available in user-friendly form on the Internet. Lawyers should therefore prepare themselves for a significant shift in their practices and consider providing on-line services to clients and the public.
There is also a need to develop 'Knowledge Management', so as to make the most of the legal information that we lawyers produce each day. A legal organisation's institutional memory is one of its greatest assets but, unless carefully managed, cannot be fully exploited.
The Department of Justice has already made good progress in respect of its own information technology. Last year we completed our Information Systems Strategy Plan. All of our staff, both lawyers and non-lawyers, now have networked computers. In addition to word processing and email functions, we have a document, library and work management system. This facilitates the processing and management of our thousands of cases, pieces of advice, and draft legislation. It also provides a convenient interface from which professional staff can access our library and databases, and can conduct legal research on the Internet.
The Law Reform Commission Secretariat has developed an index to over 1,000 legal websites on the Internet, known as 'LawLinks'. This can be accessed by lawyers and members of the public via the Law Reform Commission's Homepage. There are about 1,500 users of this service each month. The Commission's Homepage has recently been awarded a 'Golden Web Award' from the International Association of Webmasters and Designers. Our Laws of Hong Kong database (known as 'BLIS') is used by about 45,000 members of the public each month.
My department is committed to the further development of IT facilities that can enhance its services. In the coming year, we will (for example) make it possible to download and print whole enactments from our BLIS databases using the popular Internet browsers, and to view the content of BLIS in simplified Chinese characters.
Another driving force for change in Hong Kong will be China's imminent accession to the World Trade Organisation. The dramatic surge in the Mainland's international trade in goods and services will create an increased demand for legal services. Expectations as to the quality of those services will be raised. At the same time, the relaxation of the rules relating to the delivery of legal services in the Mainland by Hong Kong and foreign lawyers will provide the opportunity to meet that demand. Our own laws already provide avenues for Mainland lawyers to advise on Mainland law in Hong Kong, and to qualify as local solicitors or barristers.
Some local law firms already have offices in the Mainland. But their operations are restricted in many ways - particularly by the 'one firm, one office' rule. There are encouraging signs that these restrictions will be lifted. It is also proposed that Hong Kong lawyers can be registered in the Mainland as Hong Kong Law Lawyers; they can then be employed by a Mainland law firm to practise Hong Kong law; and after a number of years they would be allowed to become partners.
It has also been announced that people from Hong Kong will be allowed to sit the National Lawyers Examination, with a view to becoming qualified as Mainland lawyers. Many people in Hong Kong are likely to enrol for this examination. Expertise in Mainland law will grow rapidly in the SAR, and links between local and Mainland law firms are likely to be institutionalised.
My department has been working with the Law Society and Bar Association in order that Hong Kong can benefit fully from these developments. We have reached a consensus on many issues. We have made representations to relevant Mainland authorities and are maintaining a dialogue with them. I am optimistic that new rules to be promulgated in the Mainland will be beneficial to the people of Hong Kong.
At the same time, Hong Kong lawyers will face increased competition in respect of services in the Mainland. We can no longer rely only on our Chinese language ability and familiarity with Chinese culture as providing a competitive edge. Instead, we will need to provide value-added services that compare favourably with those offered by foreign competitors.
China's accession to WTO will provide Hong Kong lawyers with a unique opportunity not only to expand their legal services, but also to contribute towards the development of the Mainland and the globalisation of the economy. I am sure that this will arouse a sense of mission in many practitioners.
I have often emphasised the need for developing mutual understanding of the legal systems of Hong Kong and the Mainland. This need is all the more apparent as China joins the World Trade Organisation.
My department is continuing to develop ways of enhancing mutual legal understanding. For many years, it has assisted the British Council in organising the Hong Kong element of a course that exposes Mainland practitioners to the legal systems of England and Hong Kong. Last year, we successfully launched a pilot scheme under which government legal advisors from the Mainland are trained in the common law. The first batch of participants completed the postgraduate diploma programme in common law at the University of Hong Kong, and then obtained three months' practical legal experience through placements in various organisations. They have since returned to their official posts in the Mainland, where they can apply their newly acquired knowledge in advising on matters relating to Hong Kong. I would like to thank the Law Faculty at the University of Hong Kong, and the organisations that were involved, for their assistance with this pilot scheme. The second batch of participants is now undergoing a similar programme.
Looking at the reverse situation, many counsel in my department have undertaken courses relating to the Mainland. These vary from law degrees, to a short legal course at Fudan University, and a 4-week course on the Mainland's social, economic and legal system at Tsinghua University. In November last year, a first group of anglophone counsel from my department attended an excellent English language course in Mainland law at Peking University. The course included lectures on the legal system and government structure in the Mainland, and on the latest developments in constitutional, criminal, civil and administrative law. The participants also witnessed a criminal trial and visited a commercial law firm. I have no doubt that these arrangements will benefit the counsel involved and lead to greater mutual legal understanding.
Another way in which Hong Kong can contribute to legal development in the Mainland stems from our experience in reporting to UN treaty monitoring bodies, particularly under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. As the Mainland considers the implications of ratifying those two treaties, I am sure that it will benefit from the reports made by the Hong Kong SAR Government, and from our experience in dealing with relevant UN bodies.
As I said earlier, in the years to come, the environment in which lawyers operate will change significantly. Those currently in practice must be prepared to adjust their practices where necessary. We cannot afford to cling to types of work that are diminishing in volume. We must also ensure that future generations of lawyers are ready to meet the challenges ahead.
With this in mind, a comprehensive review of legal education is being conducted, under a Standing Committee chaired by the Solicitor General. In September of last year, a Consultation Paper, prepared by two expert consultants, was published for public comment. Over 50 submissions were received. The consultants are studying these, and are now in Hong Kong again to have further discussions with interested parties. Their final report will be published in the summer.
The Standing Committee includes representatives from the Law Society, the Bar Association, the Judiciary, the two law faculties, and lay members. Although this review of legal education is not yet complete, the progress made so far is encouraging. It demonstrates what can be achieved if members of the profession work together in the public interest.
As the profession moves forward to meet the challenges ahead, I hope the same spirit will prevail. The public interest, not sectional interests, must be our guiding principle.
Last year, there were indications of what can be achieved within the legal profession through co-operation and goodwill on all sides. If the community moves forward in the same spirit, I have no doubt that our future will be promising. This applies equally to the legal profession.
The essence of Reunification was China's resumption of the exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong, which occurred on a single day - the first of July 1997. But the broader aspects of Reunification include a learning process that will take many years to complete. This process can at times present difficult and frustrating problems. But since we are certain that we are on the right path, there are no problems that we cannot overcome.
Finally, on behalf of everyone in the Department of Justice, may I wish you all a happy and successful year 2001.
End/Monday, January 15, 2001