In this file photo dated April 15, 2021, citizens pose for a photo during an activity themed on National Security Education Day at the Hong Kong Police College in south China's Hong Kong. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

Hong Kong's legislature on Wednesday approved an amendment to the city’s Legal Practitioners Ordinance to further safeguard national security, which will require overseas lawyers to seek permission from the city’s chief executive before participating in national security cases.

At Wednesday’s Legislative Council meeting, lawmakers approved the third reading of the amended bill, which sets up the principles and mechanisms for the chief executive to approve and review applications from these lawyers. 

The bill also sets in place a mechanism to enable the chief executive to review the matter if there is a change of circumstances after permission has been granted

According to the bill, overseas lawyers, who are not qualified to practice generally in Hong Kong, need to obtain a notice of permission from the chief executive to handle national security cases. 

Unless the chief executive has sufficient grounds for believing that the lawyer’s role as a barrister in the case does not involve national security, or would not be contrary to the interests of national security, their applications would not be approved.

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The bill also sets in place a mechanism to enable the chief executive to review the matter if there is a change of circumstances after permission has been granted.

According to the bill, the chief executive’s decision under such mechanism is not liable to be questioned or challenged in any court of law.

Speaking ahead of the vote, Secretary for Justice Paul Lam Ting-kwok said he believes the amendment strikes a good balance between the city’s longstanding legal tradition of allowing overseas lawyers to participate in local cases through ad hoc admissions to boost legal exchanges, and the special administrative region’s constitutional responsibility to safeguard national security.

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Lam also emphasized that the amendment does not deprive Hong Kong residents of the right to hire legal representatives to protect their interests. But the law clearly stipulates that that right only covers lawyers who are fully-qualified to practice in Hong Kong, he said, adding that the city now has over 100 local senior counsel and over 1,500 local barristers who are qualified to practice generally in the city.

Lawmaker Ma Fung-kwok, who leads the bills committee for the amendment, said he found it unconvincing that overseas lawyers would be able to properly handle national security cases, because it would be hard for them to understand the real situation in Hong Kong and the National Security Law for Hong Kong, which was written in Chinese.

Legislator Eunice Yung Hoi-yan, who is also a barrister, warned that it would be difficult to hold overseas lawyers accountable if they violate the confidentiality principle and leak information that would endanger national security after leaving Hong Kong. She also agreed that the amendment is an improvement to the city’s mechanism for safeguarding national security.