The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) has rejected allegations that a pro-Beijing lawyer and politician based in Hong Kong called for pro-independence protestors to be “killed mercilessly”.
At the same time, it dismissed an argument by counsel for Junius Ho Kwan-yiu, a former Hong Kong Law Society president, that there could be no link between remarks made at a rally in Hong Kong and trust in the profession in England and Wales.
The tribunal said the rule on maintaining public trust in yourself as a solicitor and the profession could be engaged even though Mr Ho had never practised in England and Wales, he attended the event as a politician and it took place in Hong Kong.
The SDT said that, if it found that “a solicitor on the roll had made public remarks supporting the incitement of violence against political opponents”, then “the most serious sanctions available were likely to be appropriate notwithstanding the remoteness of the conduct”.
The tribunal went on: “However, in the particular circumstances of this case, on the balance of the evidence presented, the respondent’s comments did not begin to approach this.”
Mr Ho is senior partner of KC Ho & Fong and a member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. Qualified in Hong Kong in 1988, he has been a non-practising solicitor of England and Wales since 1997, having completed a law degree in England in 1984. He is also qualified in Singapore.
He was accused by the SRA of making comments during a public meeting in Hong Kong in September 2017 which “he knew on a reasonable interpretation, carried a meaning to the effect that political opponents to the issue under discussion should be killed; and/or were capable of being perceived as inciting violence against opponents; and/or were capable of causing offence”.
As an alternative, he was accused of making remarks which “supported and reinforced” comments made by someone else at the meeting which had those meanings.
Mr Ho was accused of the same offences relating to Facebook posts he made after the meeting.
The SDT heard that Mr Ho was on stage for the duration of the meeting, “reported by local media as having been attended by thousands of people”, held to call for the dismissal of a Hong Kong University employee said to have been involved in the pro-independence ‘Occupy’ movement that was active in 2017.
When he heard another speaker, Tang Shu-wo, use the phrase “we need to kill them” about the protestors, Mr Ho was accused of calling out “mercilessly!” on two occasions.
The SRA said that even though the Cantonese word “kill” could also mean “halt”, given his support for the speaker, “kill” was the only interpretation that could reasonably apply in this case.
In comments to the press afterwards and in his Facebook posts, Mr Ho was accused of repeating his belief that his political opponents should be killed.
Mr Ho argued that by interjecting the word “mercilessly”, he “intended to temper what was acknowledged to be an emotive political speech”.
In his comments after the meeting, Mr Ho “repeatedly clarified” that his words “were figurative and should not be taken out of context or as a literal endorsement of violence directed at political opponents” and he “subsequently ensured that no reasonable objective observer could conclude” that he encouraged the use of violence.
Counsel for Mr Ho also argued that there was “no nexus” between Mr Ho’s actions at a political event outside the UK and the profession in England and Wales.
Having reviewed a wealth of expert evidence on the interpretation of the words used by Mr Ho at the meeting and afterwards, the SRA accepted the view of expert witness Professor Richard Ho that Mr Ho’s words at the public event suggested merely “justice being carried out”.
The SDT said: “In his oral evidence Professor Ho described the phrase as harmless and a cliché which was used for dramatic effect.”
Since Mr Ho had “sought to temper the comments” made by Tang Shu-wo, his words were also not capable of causing offence.
Finding that all the SRA’s allegations against Mr Ho were not proved, the tribunal said the lawyer’s words were “not capable of being reasonably perceived as inciting violence”.
The SRA applied for costs of just under £65,000, and counsel for Mr Ho applied for a contribution to its costs of over £130,700. The tribunal made no order for costs, on the basis that the prosecution had been properly brought and reasonably pursued.