- Bar Association urges Financial Secretary Paul Chan to include barristers and other self-employed in next round of subsidies
- Traditional image of ‘hideously rich’ lawyer not accurate, says association chairman Philip Dykes
Lawyers in Hong Kong want to be included in any financial relief or subsidies the government hands out, saying they too had been badly hit by the coronavirus epidemic.
The city's Bar Association wrote to Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po on Tuesday and urged officials to include the self-employed, including barristers, in a proposed second round of funding, worth tens of billions of dollars.
In the letter, the association noted that the city's justice system and court business had "suddenly ground to a shuddering halt".
The legal body, representing 1,500 practising barristers in Hong Kong, urged the government to provide financial assistance to practitioners, such as giving one-off subsidies for rent and overheads, and postponing the income tax assessment.
"If you're running a restaurant and have a declining number of visitors, you have got to space out the tables, and you can still run it. But barristers can't do home delivery to courts," Philip Dykes, the association's chairman, said.
"We are fairly unique among the self-employed. When courts are closed it almost kills professional practice."
While the legal profession is considered a privileged career option, Dykes said it was not always the case.
"You can't assume all barristers are hideously rich. It's not true, it's a fiction. Particularly if you are a young barrister, it can be hard to get around at this time," he said.
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Dykes said it would be unfair to the self-employed if they were left out of the government's relief package.
"There is universal impact (from the coronavirus) on the economy, (so) the relief should be given to people equally," he said.
Law Society president Melissa Kaye Pang, who conceded solicitors are generally seen as middle class, also hoped the government could provide subsidies, low-interest loans, or funding so lawyers could change to providing online legal advice.
"If that's a short-term hit, most members can take it, but the question now is no one can be sure how long the epidemic will last or whether it has already peaked," Pang said.
"Property transactions have dropped, there are few litigation cases held over, even divorces cannot be done because the courts are closed."
The outbreak has hit the legal profession on an unprecedented scale, forcing courts to close since late January. The judiciary estimated about 18 per cent of annual caseloads had been affected.
Local court rules have yet to fully allow teleconferencing like in Britain, meaning some barristers and solicitors who often appear in court are largely grounded.
There are more than 10,000 solicitors in the city, most employed by law firms. Meanwhile, rules for professional practice mean barristers are self proprietors, and many have had to rely on personal savings to get through the past few months.
"We're really running on savings. It really is a problem, particularly for the criminal lawyers," said one young barrister, who qualified less than five years ago.
The average monthly earnings among his peer group before the epidemic ranged between HK$40,000 and HK$60,000 a month. That has dried up, while expenses such as rent remain.
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More high-profile barristers could earn HK$100,000 for one court sitting, but some would also rely on legal aid provided by the government.
In late 2018, the association relaxed restrictions on the occupation, and allowed barristers to take second jobs. In light of the epidemic, it has also rolled out a short-term interest-free loan to some junior practitioners who have been qualified for seven years or less.
The Law Society is also considering reducing charges on its practising certificate and professional indemnity insurance.
"We are actively considering giving a discount on that, but we will have to assess how will it affect the cash position," Pang said. "It will be decided by subcommittee pending procedural decisions."
The Department of Justice said it would allow greater flexibility in cases briefed out to outside counsel, and interim payments could be paid upon completion.
It said it would also study promoting legal technology and other possible support options.
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