From the perspective of human rights lawyers in China, who routinely face government persecution, Hong Kong must look like a paradise for practice. Though part of China, Hong Kong has its Basic Law, the mini-constitution that allowed the city to maintain the legal system it inherited from the British and guaranteed free speech and other individual rights.
Yet human rights practice generally seems an afterthought in Asia's bustling financial capital. It's certainly far less lucrative than other legal work and the prestige factor is lacking in a place where young people are perhaps more apt to name business tycoons than activists as their personal heroes.
But that may be changing, with some recent cases that have put Hong Kong human rights lawyers in the spotlight.
Many of these tend to be expatriates like Michael Vidler, a British lawyer who is director of the Hong Kong Refugee Advice Center (HKRAC), an organization for people seeking free legal advice on their refugee applications, and Mark Daly, a Canadian-born lawyer who co-founded Barnes & Daly in 1999 with fellow human rights lawyer Peter Barnes. [Full disclosure: The author was an intern at Barnes & Daly during the summer of 2009.]
Vidler notes that he and other expat lawyers hail from countries where human rights law is more established and developed. He does see more locals getting involved though. "There is an increasing number of young lawyers in Hong Kong who are prepared to commit to the extra work of human rights," Vidler says.
In addition, some international law firms have established pro bono programs which support human rights efforts. Typically, firms such as King & Wood Mallesons, Clifford Chance and Latham & Watkins, will help the HKRAC assist a few asylum seekers on their claims to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees each year. But while the big law firms help asylum seekers through the current system, it is the smaller law firms that are challenging the government to improve its human rights regime.
In 2004, Vidler successfully represented then 20-year-old Billy Leung in challenging a section of Hong Kong's Crimes Ordinance which recommended a life sentence for buggery by or on men under the age of 21. Vidler, who is also known for his work on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, has also worked on freedom of expression in Hong Kong.
He handled a case in 2008 involving a Hong Kong-based pro-Tibetan activist, Christina Chan, who planned a demonstration with two other people during the Hong Kong leg of the Olympic torch relay but was forcibly removed by police from the demonstration. Vidler brought the case against the police to the High Courts, but the judge decided that the police were right to remove her from the relay because it was Hong Kong's most glorious day, and in those exceptional circumstances, the police were justified. (Vidler did not appeal.)
"There's a general principle: the right to demonstrate and the police have an obligation to protect demonstrators," says Vidler. "These are rights enshrined by the Basic Law, and all we're doing is saying that some of the decisions made by the government are infringing the Basic Law."
He is currently representing a gay participant in the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, identified in proceedings as "T", who was removed from the demonstration along with the rest of his dance group, the Dancing Angels, last year. Up to 20 police officers disrupted the demonstration and threatened organizers with arrest, claiming that a public entertainment license should have been obtained because it was a performance in a public place. T is seeking a declaration from government stating that his rights of assembly, procession and expression under the Basic Law and the Bill of Rights were infringed. Last week, Hong Kong's High Court ruled in favor of the police but Vidler will challenge the decision in Hong Kong's appellate court.