‘A shameful and sad day’ – in-house lawyer withdraws from Hong Kong law society elections citing threats

Ex-Skadden lawyer on ‘rule of law’ ticket bows out of Tuesday’s ballot 'for my safety, and the safety of my family'
The Court of Final Appeal Building also known as the Old Supreme Court Building in Hong Kong. Formerly housed the Supreme Court and the Legislative Council

Hong Kong's Court of Final Appeal Jack Hong; Shutterstock

A candidate in forthcoming elections to the Law Society of Hong Kong’s governing council has withdrawn from the race citing threats made to him and his family.

Former Skadden capital markets lawyer Jonathan Ross, who practises as a part-time in-house lawyer, was standing on a ‘moderate’ and ‘politically neutral’ ticket in support of the rule of law in the election for five seats on the council, which takes place on Tuesday (24 August).

‘For my safety, and the safety of my family, I am announcing my intention to withdraw my name as a candidate for re-election to the Council of the Law Society of Hong Kong,’ he said in a statement on Saturday.

‘It is a shameful and sad day for Hong Kong that an election for council of our honourable institution has sunk to this level,’ he added.

Initially elected to the council in 2017, Ross was part of a loose slate of four candidates who have campaigned on the basis they are ‘diverse, experienced and independent’ and ‘fearless supporters of the rule of law’.

The three other members of the group are Denis Brock, a disputes partner at O’Melveny & Myers, Selma Masood, principal at SM & Co Solicitors, which is associated with Italy’s Gianni & Origoni, and Henry Wheare, an IP partner at Nixon Peabody’s Hong Kong arm, Nixon Peabody CWL.

Last year, the elections were held in June, shortly before the introduction of Beijing’s security law, which granted sweeping powers to China’s national security agency and has led to the arrest of dozens of democratic politicians, activists, journalists and students.

In 2020, four out of five available seats up for election were won by a slate of candidates who described themselves as ‘liberal’ and who were critical of the proposed law.

By contrast, Ross and his fellow candidates went out of their way to underline their political neutrality and focus on professional matters.

Their candidacy has nevertheless attracted fierce criticism from state-controlled media, according to the Hong Kong Free Press.

Pressure on the law society, which has consistently maintained its political neutrality, increased last week when Hong Hong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, commented on the elections.

“If the Law Society allows politics to hijack their legal profession, the government will… consider severing its relationship with it,” she told local media.

Antony Dapiran, a Hong Kong-based writer and lawyer, interpreted this as a threat to strip the law society of its regulatory powers adding in a tweet that '"politicised” appears to be new govt code word for “non-pro-govt candidates winning a majority on the Law Society council”’.

The controversy underlines the challenge the law society faces as it seeks to preserve its status as the profession’s representative and regulatory body.

Indeed, O’Melveny's Brock made the society’s continued independence a central plank of his manifesto. 

‘We must not permit our profession to become politicised: The Law Society is both our representative body and regulator,’ he wrote. ‘I am committed to ensuring that, in both roles, the Law Society serves the interests of its membership. It is not, and must not become, a political body serving the interests of non-members of the profession.’

Law society president Melissa Pang, meanwhile, said in a statement that the society had filed a report with the police regarding the alleged threats to Ross and had advised him to do the same.

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