Complaints upheld against some Hong Kong solicitors linked to protest defence fund, Law Society says

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By Blegug Nan

Some lawyers who provided services to protesters arrested during the 2019 social unrest could face disciplinary proceedings and potential suspension after the Law Society of Hong Kong substantiated complaints over their links to a legal defence fund.

Law Society president Chan Chak-ming revealed the findings on Saturday, a day after the Bar Association said it had cleared 38 barristers accused of wrongly accepting payments from the now-closed 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund that supported arrested protesters.

National security police said in May 2022 that they had filed complaints with the city’s two professional legal bodies after an investigation into the fund uncovered “suspected misconduct by solicitors and barristers” in their provision of legal services.
Complaints upheld against some Hong Kong solicitors linked to protest defence fund, Law Society says
Chan Chak-ming is president of the Law Society of Hong Kong. Photo: Edmond So

Chan said an investigation by the Law Society, the professional body for the city’s 13,000 solicitors, had ended on 10 out of 16 fund-related complaints and some had been substantiated, with full results to be announced at a later date.

“Disciplinary action varies for the established cases, and the most serious cases may need to be transferred to the independent Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal Panel,” Chan said.

He did not reveal the exact nature of the complaints or the number of solicitors involved as proceedings were continuing.

Hong Kong Bar Association clears 38 members in payment probe tied to protest fund

Under Law Society procedures, a panel formed under the Standing Committee on Compliance reviews and investigates a complaint. The standing committee will then consider whether to submit a case to the statutory disciplinary tribunal panel.

Chan said the society’s investigation drew different conclusions because the burden of background checks fell on solicitors, who faced clients directly, rather than on barristers.

Solicitors were also responsible for conducting due diligence on clients in accordance with Hong Kong’s anti-money-laundering laws and the society’s own guidelines, he said.

“These are among the directions of the Law Society’s investigation,” he added.

Hong Kong lawyers accused of misconduct over taking fees from legal defence fund

The society’s practice direction on money-laundering states that it is mandatory for a solicitor to conduct further due diligence when acting for a client in certain situations, such as managing their money and the transfer of funds through their bank accounts.

“Law firms should satisfy themselves with the identity of the client and the beneficial owners of a client which is not a natural person at the time of the instruction,” the document said.

It also requires a solicitor to determine whether to continue acting for the client and report to law enforcement when suspicious transactions are detected.

Police arrested five former trustees of the fund in 2022 for allegedly colluding with foreign forces, including retired Catholic leader Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, former lawmaker Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee and pop singer Denise Ho Wan-see.

The trustees and the fund’s secretary were also fined in November 2022 for failing to register it in accordance with the Societies Ordinance.

Meanwhile, the Law Society published a position paper on the use of artificial intelligence (AI) ahead of a round-table event coinciding with the ceremonial opening of the legal year on Monday.

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The society said a lawyer’s professional ethical duties and values should not change no matter which AI tools were deployed, as a solicitor had a duty to act competently.

“He must know the capabilities and limitations of the tools and consider the risks and benefits of the products generated by those tools in the context of the specific case that he is working on,” the paper said.

The professional body outlined a three-phase approach, starting with educational events to build community awareness of AI, followed by the development of AI ethical standards and best practices for law firms on responsible AI adoption.

It also plans to conduct research on whether reforms on the legal ethical and regulatory framework are required to enable the industry to reap the benefits and address threats to the sector’s sustainability.

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