New Hong Kong Bar chairman seeks to ease tensions with Beijing

Victor Dawes says Bar wants to improve government relations but will speak out ‘when necessary’

Victor Dawes (centre) at a Hong Kong Bar Association press conference Alvin Lum

The Hong Kong Bar Association's newly-elected chairman Victor Dawes SC is seeking to mend fences with Beijing and reset relations that began to sour in 2018.

Dawes, who succeeded human rights lawyer Paul Harris SC to lead the association's 1,600 barristers, said he saw no reason why the association's regular meetings with Chinese officials and their counterparts could not resume.

"If invited, and if the Covid situation permits, we will want to go to Beijing," Dawes told the local press after he was elected as chairman in an uncontested election, adding he believed it was in his barristers' and the public's best interests to maintain close communication with both the mainland Chinese and Hong Kong governments.

He said the Bar will speak out on Hong Kong's rule of law “when necessary”, including about the Special Administrative Region's controversial National Security Law (NSL).

Last year, Beijing fiercely attacked the Hong Kong Bar Association after its outgoing British-born chairman Harris previously floated the idea of modifying the controversial NSL when he took office a year ago.

The sweeping legislation came into force back in July, with China's local office in Hong Kong labelling Harris an 'anti-China politician', while Chinese state media called for his removal. 

Harris, who acted for defendants charged under the NSL, later took a much lower public profile and rarely gave interviews. 

Dawes, who was called to the Bar in 1999 and took silk in 2015, was seen by barristers as a moderate candidate to lead the advocacy branch of Hong Kong's legal professions. A barrister at Temple Chambers, he specialises in commercial disputes. He sits as a deputy judge of the High Court while also acting as a non-executive director of Hong Kong's Securities and Futures Commission.

Noting the association went through a “turbulent year”, Dawes struck a more cautious tone about the NSL, saying it was not only part of Hong Kong law but appealed to the public to give time for courts to interpret the law. 

"Whether the [NSL] is in compliance with the fundamental rights under the Basic Law, are no doubt matters that [those] defendants will raise in courts," he said, without directly addressing if the law should be amended. 

He continued: “When there are issues on the rule of law in the [coming] year, we will of course be concerned, and at the right juncture we will comment on it if it is necessary,” adding that the association will actively participate in consultations about other laws aimed at protecting national security.

The veteran lawyer repeatedly stressed the Bar was a professional body and would not engage in local politics. He said the Bar hoped to "have more dialogue and seek more opportunities" for barristers, both in China's Greater Bay Area and globally, including ongoing liaison with mainland authorities about legal examinations to allow barristers to practise mainland laws in that area.

Since Hong Kong's handover to China in 1997, the Bar had traditionally been vocal on the city's rule of law issues, including some criticism of Beijing's various interpretations of the city's mini-constitution, the Basic Law.

The Bar enjoyed a honeymoon period with Beijing after 1997, with senior Chinese officials routinely receiving Bar delegations in Beijing. Those visits and dialogue ceased after Harris's predecessor and fellow human rights barrister Philip Dykes SC was re-elected chairman in 2018, having first served between 2005 and 2007. 

Since August last year, the SAR's government has also stalled the appointment of the Bar's proposed candidate to sit on a judicial appointments committee that makes recommendations on the merits of applications to all levels of Hong Kong's courts.

Dawes's moderate stance echoed similar sentiments by a slate of solicitors who stood for election in a controversial and contested election to the Law Society of Hong Kong's council. The moderate slate, previously successful in 2020, was defeated by pro-establishment candidates last year.

Meanwhile, pro-establishment candidate and solicitor Ambrose Lam was elected to the SAR’s Legislative Council’s legal constituency on just a 33% turnout, replacing previous incumbent Denis Kwok, a pan-democrat. 

Kwok, a barrister, was disqualified from re-standing for election. He has since left Hong Kong, taking up an academic post at Harvard University. 

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