LawAsia Conference 2019: Harmonisation through Synergy
Chooi Jing Yen was one of the recipients of the Law Society’s sponsorship for young lawyers to attend overseas conferences. As part of the sponsorship, the recipient must submit a paper on the conference that he or she attended.
In November 2019, the annual LawAsia Conference returned to Hong Kong for the third time in its 32-session history – the previous two Hong Kong editions having been held in 1989 and 2007.
The 32nd LawAsia Conference was subtitled “Harmonisation through Synergy”, but the emphasis on Rule of Law remained as strong as it was in previous editions of this flagship LawAsia event. Indeed, every speaker at the Opening Ceremony mentioned these words several times in their respective speeches. Amongst them were the Chief Justice of the Court of Final Appeal of Hong Kong, Geoffrey Ma and the Secretary for Justice, Teresa Cheng.
And rightly so, given the climate of social unrest within which the conference was being held. To be clear, there was nothing intentional about this – the conference having been announced months before civil unrest was sparked by the tabling in parliament of the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019, colloquially known as the extradition bill. By the time the conference was to begin, large-scale protests had been ongoing for 21 consecutive weekends, and Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs had issued an advisory advising Singaporeans to defer non-essential travel to Hong Kong.
The organisers nevertheless elected to press on with the conference, and were rewarded with a show of support from over 600 delegates and 30 jurisdictions, including several European countries. This provided fertile ground for lively debate, considering the substantial Chinese delegation, not to mention the local Hong Kongers. The press had, obviously, for months been reporting from several different perspectives depending on where one was situated.
And so the stage was set for a highly apposite and relevant reminder of the importance of the Rule of Law, no matter what one’s political inclinations or affiliations might be. All present agreed that violence could not be condoned. Society and civilisation has evolved far enough for civil discourse to be civil, and not degenerate into rule by mob.
For without the Rule of Law, where would the lawyers be?
The conference was held across several different venues on Hong Kong Island, providing an excellent opportunity to get to know the city. The opening ceremony was at the JW Marriott, with plenary sessions at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. Lunches were at the nearby Renaissance Hong Kong Harbour View Hotel, with the welcome reception at the Happy Valley Racecourse and the gala dinner at The Grand Stage in Des Voeux Road Central.
With the full schedule spread over five days, the opening ceremony on the third day came the day after masked protestors evoking Guy Fawkes in Tsim Sha Tsui had to be dispersed through the use of water cannons. The next two days were jam-packed with no less than twenty plenary sessions. Such was the wealth of knowledge on offer that several of these had to be run concurrently, the result being that one was often torn between topics such as insolvency law and criminal law, scheduled to be discussed at the same time in different rooms.
The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation 2018
Returning to the theme Harmonisation through Synergy, one plenary session worth dwelling on is that titled Communications, Technology & Data Protection. The very esteemed panel of six speakers and two moderators tackled the impact of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) on businesses in the Asia Pacific. Perspectives were offered from Switzerland, Germany, the United Kingdom, Australia, Sri Lanka, Japan, China and Hong Kong. Implemented in May 2018, the GDPR unified regulations on privacy and data protection for businesses operating within the European Union. This comes with implications for their subsidiaries, holding companies, and business partners outside of the European Union, especially where data transfer is concerned. The United Kingdom is also in a unique position. Its impending exit from the European Union does not mean that its businesses would not have to be concerned about the GDPR – only that they would have to be concerned in a different way.
A lively discussion also centred around the different powers of enforcement available in each country. The speaker from Australia, for example, commented that this could be a function of how each government values individual rights, balanced against the increased business costs that would result from strict implementation and enforcement of data privacy laws. Whilst no perspective was offered from Singapore, it was interesting to note the resemblances and differences between the GDPR and our Personal Data Protection Act, and ponder over what this may say about the difference in philosophy taken by our own legislature.
The plenary session titled Reorganisation Alternatives for Cross-Border Insolvency in Asia is also worth mentioning, not least because the panel comprised no less than three judges, including the Honourable Justice Vinodh Coomaraswamy from Singapore. The session led with a comparison of the approaches towards impending insolvency in Hong Kong, Australia and Singapore. Whilst differences were noted, it became clear as the session wore on that the prevailing judicial attitude was to assist, as far as possible, foreign insolvency proceedings especially in the light of facilitating international business. As the Honourable Justice Coomaraswamy remarked in closing, “divergence increases business costs”.
The last day of the conference also saw the finals of the LawAsia moot competition being held, with the University of Malaya narrowly beating the National University of Singapore for the crown. The team from the Singapore Management University won best memorial.
In closing, the very exciting announcement was made that the 33rd LawAsia Conference would be held in September 2020 in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.