Teaching Law in Hong Kong

by Jothi Reddy on 8 May 2017


I had my law degree and I was already Called to the Bar, but I wasn’t sure of the direction I wanted to take. I needed more time to think. That’s how I ended up doing my Masters at Lucy Cavendish College.

Lucy Girls 1983It was more than 30 years ago, but I remember my time at the College very well. The extraordinary mix of fellow students hit me from day one; I was one of the younger students at the time. When fellow students talked about how they wound up at Lucy, one can only admire the determination, and often extraordinary personal challenges they faced to get back into education. There was always the feeling of support and mentoring at Lucy. We spoke about our studies of course, but conversations often turned to the values and realities of life, both rich and harsh.

I came away from Lucy Cavendish with the feeling that all things were possible. I grew to understand myself better; I learned to recognise that over-thinking the various life-paths leads one nowhere. No one can predict the future. I realised that whilst I cannot control what happens tomorrow, I can control the actions I take every day. There was simply no need to conform to anyone else’s expectations. As a result, I practised as a barrister in London, worked with Price Waterhouse Coopers, entered investment banking and founded a publishing company specialising in books for law students. Lucy helped me recognise, and ultimately accept, the unpredictable nature of life.

Southern China 2015: The person on my right (as you look at the photo) is Pam Chua, from the 1884 photo We did the LLM together and she now runs her own law firm in Kuala Lumpur. The photo shows our hiking trip into China a couple of years ago. I now teach on the London LLB programme at the University of Hong Kong. Please do not mention to the University that I so enjoy doing what I do that I’d do it for free! Why? It’s the students. My Hong Kong students are mainly graduates with full-time jobs. They work all day and then get themselves to campus for 3-hour evening lectures. I can only admire their dedication to further their education. Not all aspire to become lawyers; many do the LLB to enhance their skills in the work place, commercial or otherwise.

It is English law they are studying and lectures are conducted in English. However, English is not the first language for most of my students. The study of law requires them to get to grips with a whole new language, including the joys of Latin maxims. Many concepts are quite complex. Nevertheless, you should just see the enthusiasm students have for both the subject and the realisation of its relevance to everyday lives. It gives me great pleasure to see my students become interested in the law.

What is clear though, is that attitudes have changed. When I first started teaching in Hong Kong many years ago, students generally accepted the decisions of the Hong Kong government without question. Their thinking has evolved, however, and students are now expecting more of the government. My students become more assertive as time goes by. It is always encouraging when students realise that the law operates in a wider context.

Recent controversy has challenged Hong Kong’s confidence in the rule of law. The rule of law is a system of government in which a society maintains a set of just and fair laws by which it and its government will abide. This is in contrast to the rule by law whereby the law is used as a tool of political power. The latter is usually associated with authoritarian regimes, whereby the state uses the law to control its citizens but does not permit for the state itself to be questioned.

The background: Hong Kong’s constitution (known as the Basic Law) permits it to retain a high degree of autonomy and to maintain its own political and legal system as a special administrative region of China until 2047. This arrangement is known as ‘one country, two systems’. It was established in the 1997 handover agreements. It preserves the capitalist system and way of life in Hong Kong, notwithstanding the prevailing socialist system and policies in mainland China. The idea of ‘one country, two systems’ is that there is only one China but Hong Kong is to retain its own established political and legal systems.

What happened in 2016: China intervened in Hong Kong’s legal system. This move followed a provocative display of anti-China sentiment at the Hong Kong swearing-in ceremony of two elected pro-independence MPs; they refused to swear allegiance to China and carried flags that read ‘Hong Kong is not China’. The Hong Kong government took the highly unusual step of launching legal proceedings to ban the two MPs retaking their oath and taking up office. China announced it would rule on the matter and interpreted an article in the Basic Law which effectively left the Hong Kong court with clear guidance that the two MPs were disqualified from office. The Hong Kong court upheld China’s interpretation. This decision proved deeply unpopular. Thousands of people marched through the city of Hong Kong to protest against China’s intervention. Hong Kong is a part of China: that is not going to change. But no one wanted interference from China in what they saw as a matter for Hong Kong and its courts. Some have expressed doubts about the future of the relative political freedoms enjoyed in Hong Kong, and see the stronger assertion of ‘one country’ as eroding the respect for ‘two systems’.

Jothi ReddyOne fundamental principle of the rule of law is that no one is above the law. Everyone (citizens and the government) is bound by the law and everyone has access to the law’s protection. Although Hong Kong’s legal system is not perfect in every respect, the rule of law does restrain the arbitrary abuse of power by those who are simply powerful. A 2017 high-profile example includes the 20 months’ prison sentence handed to former Hong Kong chief executive Donald Tsang after a jury found him guilty of misconduct in public office. Tsang failed to disclose his plans to lease a luxury penthouse in mainland China from a businessman who was a major shareholder in a company which was then applying to the Hong Kong government for a digital broadcasting licence, later granted. Tsang is not the only senior city official ever to be convicted in a criminal trial. In 2014, Tsang’s deputy, Rafael Hui, was convicted of misconduct in public office in another high-profile trail over ‘cash for favours’ dealings with a billionaire tycoon. Hui was given a 7-year sentence. In a twist of fate, Tsang is expected to spend his gaol term in maximum-security Stanley Prison (in the south part of Hong Kong island), where Hui is serving out his sentence.

My students recognise that the rule of law cannot exist without a clear set of laws. Respect for the rule of law is a prerequisite for the protection of all fundamental values. It is grounded in respect for human rights and tolerance of differences of culture and religion. Hong Kong democracy continues to evolve and my students’ attitudes are also evolving as time passes.

I am rewarded when students tell me I have made a difference. Making a difference makes all the difference. At the risk of sounding grandiose, I have the honour of shaping a future generation. I came away from Lucy Cavendish with the feeling that all things were possible. I still feel the same today.