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SAR lawyers welcome extension to GBA legal pilot scheme

By William Xu in Hong Kong | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2023-09-01 22:04


Lawyers from the Hong Kong and Macao special administrative regions on Friday welcomed the three-year extension to an existing pilot scheme, which enables legal practitioners in the two SARs to practice in neighboring mainland cities.

They said the development was well-received as legal professionals anticipate seeing a substantial demand for legal services in the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area, as well as a more streamlined and efficient process for cross-boundary practice.

The Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, the nation's top legislature, passed a decision on Friday to prolong the pilot program, which was introduced in 2020, until Oct 4, 2026.

The purpose of extending the program is to better leverage Hong Kong and Macao legal practitioners' unique skills in the process of developing the Greater Bay Area, and to "generalize the experiences gathered so far", the NPCSC said in a statement issued on Friday afternoon.

The State Council will submit a comprehensive report on the experimental scheme's implementation to the NPCSC after the extension period has ended. For measures that have been found to be practical and conducive, the NPCSC will consider revising and improving relevant laws to formalize them as policies, the statement added.

As of July 24, 341 legal practitioners from Hong Kong and Macao had been authorized to provide civil and commercial legal services in nine mainland GBA cities under the existing pilot programs, according to the draft decision on extending the pilot scheme submitted to the NPCSC on Monday.

In order to qualify as "GBA lawyers", Hong Kong and Macao lawyers are required to pass the GBA Legal Professional Examination and obtain a GBA practice certificate. Furthermore, they must secure employment with an eligible employer based in one of the nine mainland GBA cities — either with a mainland law firm or with a Hong Kong or Macao law firm operating in partnership with a mainland law firm.

The annual exam is open to lawyers who are eligible to practice in Hong Kong or Macao, have gained a minimum of five years' working experience in the legal field, and can demonstrate commendable professional ethics and proficiency in Chinese writing and spoken Mandarin. As of July 24, more than 1,500 legal practitioners from Hong Kong and Macao had taken the three exams held from 2021 to 2023, according to the draft decision.

As of March, a total of 124 GBA lawyers were reportedly employed by 38 law firms in Shenzhen, Guangdong province. Shenzhen has emerged as the most popular destination for expanding legal practices within the GBA given its close economic and social ties with Hong Kong and its favorable policies for cross-border businesses.

Ronald Sum Kwan-ngai, a veteran Hong Kong solicitor and council member of the Law Society of Hong Kong, said the extension to the pilot scheme will provide more time for Hong Kong lawyers to adapt to the mainland working environment, as well as to deal with the challenges they encounter when trying to start a business across the border.

Sum noted that many law firms in Hong Kong are small or mid-sized, meaning that many of them do not have branch offices on the mainland or know much about their mainland counterparts.

Lawyers from these firms may face difficulties in finding an eligible mainland employer, as the program requires them to do, Sum said, adding that more time is needed for these firms to build a stable relationship with a mainland law firm and assist their lawyers in finding a reliable working platform on the mainland.

Sum continued that the mainland and Hong Kong authorities can also hold constructive discussions on policies to further facilitate Hong Kong lawyers seeking to work in mainland GBA cites during the extended period.

Currently the Professional Indemnity Scheme, an insurance-like program operated by the Law Society of Hong Kong to protect Hong Kong solicitors from liability arising from their professional activities, only provides cover for their professional activities in Hong Kong. Those seeking to practice on the mainland are usually required to buy into the insurance program used on the mainland. Sum suggested combining the two, allowing Hong Kong lawyers to buy one indemnity insurance coverage for both local and cross-boundary practice as well.

Vong Hin-fai, president of the board of directors of the Macao Lawyers Association, said the pilot scheme's extension, which will enable Hong Kong and Macao lawyers to align their careers with the nation's development, will help provide high-quality and efficient legal services for the development of the Greater Bay Area.

So far, over 60 Macao lawyers have met all the requirements for handling legal affairs in the nine mainland GBA cites, Vong added.

Vong said most Macao lawyers can use Chinese, Portuguese and English as their working languages, and are reasonably familiar with the laws and legal systems of Portuguese-speaking countries and regions, which gives them an edge in helping mainland enterprises tap into the markets of Portuguese-speaking countries and regions, and in assisting Portuguese-speaking investors to enter the mainland market.

He suggested that the authorities involved in the pilot scheme should continue to increase the number of GBA lawyers in both quality and quantity, optimize the scope of business for GBA lawyers, strengthen the convergence of the regulation policies in the two SARs and other GBA cities, and help GBA lawyers learn about any newly enacted laws and regulations on the mainland.

Hong Kong solicitor and lawmaker Holden Chow Ho-ding said that although many Hong Kong legal practitioners have taken and passed the GBA Legal Professional Examination over the past few years, many of them have missed out on the opportunities available for a variety of reasons.

He believes the extension to the pilot scheme will enable more qualified Hong Kong lawyers to practice in the nine mainland GBA cities in the future, helping them develop mixed expertise in both Hong Kong's common law system and the mainland's legal system.

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