"We aren't making the law; we're just saying that you have to abide by the rules and values enshrined by the Basic Law," says Vidler.
The suits Daly filed in 2010 on behalf of domestic workers seeking permanent resident status in Hong Kong have brought him the greatest publicity -- and notoriety -- of his career. Hong Kong's 400,000 foreign maids, who mainly hail from Indonesia and the Philippines, are denied the right -- extended to virtually all other expatriates -- to apply for permanent residency after seven years in the territory. Daly argues that this exclusion violates the Basic Law.
The idea of giving maids permanent residency is deeply unpopular among Hong Kong citizens, who worry that the maids would bring over spouses and other family members to compete against locals for jobs and access to public services. The case has led to impassioned protests and has resulted in Daly's first hate email -- albeit just one message so far.
The government is arguing that maids, who are hired under strict contracts, are in a separate category from other expats. A trial court agreed with Daly in September 2011, but an appellate court reversed that decision last March. The case now goes before the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal; if it rules for the maid, there will be enormous political pressure on the Hong Kong government to take the unpalatable step of asking Beijing for an interpretation of the Basic Law that specifically bars the maids from permanent residency. [See related article, "Help Not Wanted," June 25, 2012.]
With the maid's case and many of the other cases he brings, Daly is trying to challenge the widespread assumption among the public in Hong Kong that political concerns and popular opinion should determine constitutional rights. He says the Hong Kong government too often feeds such beliefs by both its actions and inactions.
"The Hong Kong government has a bunker-down, status-quo mentality and it's not progressive in terms of developing human rights," says Daly.
Farzana Aslam, a professor of business and human rights law at the University of Hong Kong, agrees that the government tends to follow what it perceives to be popular opinion.
"The trouble is, that's never how human rights are advanced," she says. "You have to be a leader, you have to lead public opinion and you can't accept a compromise. Daly has been one of those figures who has been at the forefront of that development and really forced some change in Hong Kong."
Aside from the maid's case, Daly is best known for his work on behalf of another unpopular group: refugees from Southeast Asia. Some of these claimed they faced torture at home and sought protection under the United Nations Convention Against Torture, to which Hong Kong is a signatory. Until Daly brought a suit against the government, Hong Kong's immigration department provided no legal assistance to those seeking CAT protection and merely referred all such claims to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees; claimants from Hong Kong had a zero success rate. In 2005, Daly won a decision at the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal requiring the Hong Kong government to process CAT claims itself.
"Only a small part of Hong Kong's community understands the rights of asylum seekers and CAT claimants," says Law Yuk Kai, director of the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor, an independent, non-partisan organization in Hong Kong which promotes human rights protection in Hong Kong. But he says the cases Daly brought forced the government to set aside its concerns about public opinion. "The government has no choice but to change things once the court says the system is illegal and it fails to meet the standard of fairness test."