This time, our Senior Partner Colin Cohen welcomes one of Hong Kong’s most eminent barristers, Senior Counsel Gladys Li. In a wide-ranging discussion, Gladys reflects on her days studying law at Cambridge University, early work experiences in London and her distinguished career in Hong Kong where she has championed human rights and access to education.
Host: Colin Cohen
Director: Niall Donnelly
Producer and VO: Thomas Latter
Boase Cohen and Collins
[00:00:36] Colin Cohen: Gladys, welcome to Law & More, and I'm absolutely delighted that you can join us. You've always seemed to be in the news, what's keeping you busy right now at this moment?
[00:00:47] Gladys Li: Well actually, I have to say it's the case we can't mention. Which is I'm acting for one of the 47 accused of a conspiracy to commit subversion under the National Security Law.
[00:01:01] Colin Cohen: So we will park that and that's keeping you busy at the moment, right? I want to go a little bit back to the very beginnings. Because you have a very, very distinguished career and in particular, you're schooling, obviously you went to a good university.
I was there a little bit after you, but only just. So tell us about that.
[00:01:19] Gladys Li: Well, I was packed off to boarding school when I was 11 years old. With my two brothers, I mean, they were at different schools, of course.
And it was interesting, it was a convent school, very strict aspects of it were a bit like being in prison. We had censorship of all our mail.
We could write to our parents and seal the envelope, but to anybody else. Everything had to be open so that the nuns could read. And I am a dinosaur Collin, so I was at school during the Profumo scandal and the nuns had to cut out everything to do with this case. So we would confront the daily newspaper that looked like cake doilies.
I mean, there were more holes than there was print in these newspapers. So I kind of got semi-accustomed to a degree of censorship.
[00:02:16] Colin Cohen: Excellent, now you are at the school and in the UK. And a career in law, what took you down that road? I know you come from a very eminent family, your father being a court of appeals, judge, et cetera, but what brought you into law? Really?
[00:02:29] Gladys Li: I honestly can't remember, but I did decide when I was aged about 10 years old that I wanted to become a barrister. And I had moments of wavering when I was at university, but in the end I was much focused on going to the Bar. And that's what I've stuck to.
[00:02:49] Colin Cohen: Now, which college were you at the end? Girton, yes. I was at Downing and John Hopkins was my tutor, and I presume Cherry was very much involved.
[00:02:58] Gladys Li: She was our supervisor in international law.
[00:03:02] Colin Cohen: Right. And then you called out a Clive Parry was at that time there as well. So at Cambridge, were you happy there? Did you enjoy your time
[00:03:11] Gladys Li: there?
Yes, I enjoyed it, but is there anything that kind of sticks out? Nothing in particular, to be honest, apart from the wonderful Gareth Jones, and you must have been lectured by him.
[00:03:23] Colin Cohen: I was indeed I did my LLM on restitution, and I was at Downing, but he was at Trinity Hall. Goff and Jones on restitution, a copy of it just there, Law of Restitution.
[00:03:34] Gladys Li: Well, I do remember my first supervision with Gareth Jones, and we used to go to Trinity. And I arrived late and every seat in the room seemed to be taken. There was only one vacancy. He was standing by the fireplace. And so I sat down in the only vacancy, and he said, Ms. Li, you have sat in teacher's chair. So I shot up, everybody shuffled up on the sofa and I had somewhere else to sit.
[00:04:08] Colin Cohen: Cambridge, you've then decided to go to the Bar. You did your pupillage and bar exams in London. And you took up a tenancy there.
[00:04:17] Gladys Li: Yeah, that's right. And all of that was also a bit of a struggle because at that time, less than 10% of the Bar were women. And I don't think of it as prejudice as such. It was just that it's so happened that the numbers of women going to the bar were relatively small and probably much, much better now. So it was a real struggle, but I was lucky with my pupillages. My cousin, Andrew, introduced me to Antony Dicks.
And Antony Dicks introduced me to somebody who had been at school with him. And I became the pupil of somebody called Piers Herbert. But it was the chambers, which was interesting.
John Mortimer QC. Author of the Rumpole books.
[00:05:06] Colin Cohen: Yes. Dr. Johnson's building. Exactly. Yes. Yes. I know it fairly well.
[00:05:11] Gladys Li: And then of course the head of chambers was the venerable William [Lei Chi]. Who was the editor of [Raiden] at that time. So my pupil masters practice was mainly criminal and family law. And there was some very interesting cases during the time when I was a pupil there.
[00:05:32] Colin Cohen: Tell us a little bit more about your practice. So you did your pupillage and to help our listeners, it's sort of 12 months pupillage, very similar to Hong Kong.
[00:05:39] Gladys Li: All right
[00:05:40] Colin Cohen: made you stay in London and tell us a little bit about your type of practice you were doing.
[00:05:44] Gladys Li: I had decided that I wanted to try and make it at the bar in London. It was very, very tough. And my second six months pupillage was with Mark Potter. And some very eminent people, including Tom Bingham, Lord Scarman had been a member of that set of chambers.
It was a hugely impressive set of chambers, but I was the first woman there. I don't know whether I was the first woman pupil, but I had a period of squatting there and wondering whether I was going to get taken on as a tenant. And one of the silks there had asked me to do some research. I did some research for a case that he was appearing in.
And one of the authorities I found was the ultimate case that won him the case. So he was a great proponent of my being taken on in chambers. And that's how I ended up in what became Fountain Court.
[00:06:37] Colin Cohen: Tell us a little bit about your practice?
[00:06:38] Gladys Li: Well my practice was really, to be honest, rather desultory. Chambers was very mixed. There was very high-powered commercial work. And then there were some solicitors who, I think were basically, pally with the chief Clark. Who was a very distinguished gentleman in his own right. He was chairman of the Clark's Association. And he was kind of on first name terms with Lord Denning and people.
I mean, everybody knew him. So he had a number of solicitors that regularly sent what I might call low powered work to chambers. And one of the solicitors had cornered the RAC, which had a free scheme of representation for minor motoring offenses.
[00:07:24] Colin Cohen: And for our listeners, that's the Royal automobile club is like AA.
[00:07:28] Gladys Li: Yes, and so we kind of cut our teeth on really, really basic work going around magistracy's, mainly in the Southeast of the UK. And I'm fighting these cases. One of my first cases was for a chap who'd been charged with careless driving. And he was eventually acquitted. And to my great embarrassment, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a huge wad of five pound notes and tried to give them to me.
it kind of shocked me. And there were other solicitors like that. There was a solicitor who sent both criminal work and civil work to chambers. And the instructions that we got invariably, back sheet, and you opened it inside the back sheet, it said, counsel will do the necessary.
And that was all the instructions we ever got. So you've really learned very quickly how to arrive at court, get information quickly from your client, and then represent them.
[00:08:29] Colin Cohen: You're in London, in the late seventies. That was a time I was just starting off there as well. Did you enjoy London at that time?
[00:08:36] Gladys Li: Yes, I did. Who could fail to enjoy London? There's so much going on, lots of music, lots of museums to go to, lots of parks. And I had friends living in London. So yes, it was wonderful. And then, actually, chamber's life was a bit like a family.
Chambers now are huge, almost like very large law firms. But back then, the numbers were relatively small and so everybody knew everybody else, we would gather for tea. And then the younger members of chambers used to go off to Alvino's or a bar at the end of the working day.
And it was very sort of convivial, basically.
[00:09:17] Colin Cohen: So 1982, you made the decision to come back to Hong Kong. You've already been admitted to Hong Kong a little bit earlier.
[00:09:26] Gladys Li: right
[00:09:26] Colin Cohen: I arrived in Hong Kong in 1981. And my reason for coming to Hong Kong, well that's for another story another day. What brought you back to Hong Kong in 1982?
[00:09:35] Gladys Li: Well, I had kind of got to the position where I felt that my practice was in a rut. I had some really interesting cases as second junior. And cases that I would never, never, ever have had the opportunity of being involved in. Had I been in Hong Kong, one of which was an arbitration between the government of an African nation and an American commercial company, a major arbitration. The chair of the arbitral panel was Lord Devlin, it was really fantastic. And the place of arbitration was Paris, and we were put up in the most expensive hotel. So it was a fantastic experience from every point of view, and also very interesting from the legal aspect.
But I'd got to the stage where I felt I wasn't developing. I wasn't getting the kind of work that I wanted to do. So again, instrumental in career change, if I can put it that way, was my cousin Andrew. Because Andrew had been in [Aussies] chambers, and then in Prince's building, and Andrew had an office in Admiralty center. So he decided to leave, and he just had a word with [Aussie] and he said, why don't we suggest to Gladys that she comes back to Hong Kong.
[00:10:56] Colin Cohen: You were quite well-connected because for our listeners, Andrew Lee, was the first Chief Justice of Hong Kong after the handover as well. So you had a little bit of an entrée into the legal profession?
[00:11:07] Gladys Li: Absolutely, and I've been very lucky in that respect. I owe a lot to Andrew, for which I'm very grateful.
[00:11:15] Colin Cohen: My first real case when I came to Hong Kong, I worked as a very junior associate, and we did a really interesting Indian case and the lead council was and Andrew Li, your cousin. It was my first introduction, very nice person to work with. We were instructing on the case as well. So you're back in Hong Kong. Tell us the early days of your practice.
[00:11:33] Gladys Li: Again, I was exceedingly fortunate because some of the people in the AG's chambers then were people that I'd known, like Neil Kaplan, for instance. I was asked to become involved in a building arbitration, and I hadn't actually done any building work at all.
There was to be a London leader, a London silk, and also a London working in London. So, I was asked to actually draft the pleadings, doing a lot of what one might call donkey work. It was new to me, that was a very successful arbitration for the government. And so that kind of started me off on doing a certain amount of building contract work. When I was in London, I did quite a lot of matrimonial work, inevitably. And I decided I really do not want to continue doing any more matrimonial work.
So I decided that I wouldn't. I had done a couple of criminal cases when I came back in Hong Kong. But really decided I didn't want to do criminal work. And so I just did pretty much anything else that came to me and, practice developed from there. I didn't consciously choose to do building contract work, nor did I consciously choose to do tax work. just came my way and I kind of developed a practice in that area.
[00:12:55] Colin Cohen: So, you're known and renowned for your human rights and constitutional law. How did you get into that particular area.
[00:13:01] Gladys Li: Again, it wasn't a conscious decision. I think, have to thank the wonderful, wonderful Pam Baker. Because the first case that really got my interest in human rights was a case for the Vietnamese asylums seekers.
[00:13:18] Colin Cohen: I remember that very clearly. To help our listeners, Pam Baker was at the department of legal aid. I knew her very well, she was a great lady in signing up cases and making...
[00:13:27] Gladys Li: Well, she would actually go into the camps. She was obviously fulfilling a very unmet need. And well it was thanks to her that it really kind of opened my eyes to the whole area of human rights. Because actually when I was studying at Cambridge, human rights wasn't even, I don't think, a separate subject. The international covenants hadn't really even come into force, the civil and political rights. So there was nothing much to study.
[00:13:55] Colin Cohen: Oh, but I disagree with you slightly because when I was at Cambridge 77 to 78. Patio Higgins a whole case on civil liberties and human rights part of the LLM program. That's how I got my interest in that area.
[00:14:08] Gladys Li: Yes, but it's kind of hived off, the Liberty of the person, freedom from arrest, all of that kind of thing, and an Englishman's home is his castle. But there wasn't really the broad field of human rights. It was really Pam baker who was responsible. And on the constitutional side, it was kind of accidental as well.
Cause when I came back in 1982, about a month or two before Margaret Thatcher went up to and had that ill-fated fall down the steps of the great hall of the people.
And I didn't consciously think of anything in the area of constitutional law. But I was asked to join a little group that didn't have a name, consisting of Anna Woo, Emily Lau, Christine Lowe. Basically because we felt the members of parliament in the UK were extraordinarily ignorant about Hong Kong.
And so we started writing newsletters to them, sending them stuff to talk about various issues. Including to me, what was fundamental was, independence of the judiciary. So I guess my interest in constitutional law kind of grew from there and what a wonderful opportunity it was because everybody was starting from the same base level - judges, practitioners. Nobody had any experience of this. And The Basic Law was there, we'd gone through the drafting stage and expressed views. So it was almost inevitable that I was there doing the first case, if not one of the first cases.
[00:15:46] Colin Cohen: And just to backtrack a little bit is in 1990, you took silk, you became a QC at that stage because Queens Council automatically morphs into senior council in 1990. And what I am very interested in that you did become a chair lady of the Bar Association in 1995. Now, did you enjoy that.
[00:16:07] Gladys Li: I wouldn't say that I enjoyed it. I think that at that time, and maybe ever since, it was the kind of position where you have to have your arm twist In order to take it on because basically pretty much full time involved in the affairs of the Bar. Although Henry Litton, I don't know whether he endured it or relished it, but he was really the most outstanding chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association. But his contribution is just inestimable, I think. So I felt obliged to take it on, and of course there were a number of controversial issues in the run-up to 1997, including the provisional legislature. So one was called upon to say something about it, do something about it. And really, as far as I could see, it was just basically trying to inform the public. So they had a better understanding of what was going on.
[00:17:05] Colin Cohen: So we're coming up to 97 you did your chairman of the Bar and that momentous occasion of the handover. Any thoughts at the time?
[00:17:14] Gladys Li: I have to say that I was always a bit skeptical, but we also had great expectations that our conception of what The Basic Law provided and protected would actually come. So I think it was really a feeling of being absolutely vigilant and keep as much as possible to what we believed The Basic Law provided in terms of protection for us.
[00:17:38] Colin Cohen: And of course the Court of Final Appeal came in, removing from the privy council into the Court of Final Appeal. And of course, one of the first big cases, was the right of abode case.
[00:17:48] Gladys Li: Yes, well I think the whole period of fighting a number of cases on The Basic Law and Right of Abode because to me, the provisions were so very clear. Of course, there were areas where one was fighting, such as the many families who were hoping for family reunion. So it was something that we had anticipated and actually prepared for before exactly the 1st of July 1997. Because there was legislation passed immediately, that was retrospective, So there was a lot of preparation for those first cases. But actually the very first case I was pitched into was not something that I had anticipated at all. I was sitting in chambers one day and Audrey rang up and said. Do you know there's this case going on in the Court of Appeal, they need some help to argue a point on the legality of the provisional legislature. Can you come down this afternoon? So Margaret and I pitched up in the court of appeal, nobody had given much thought to what was our Locus Standi.
So the accused said, oh, Can I engage them as my counsel to argue this point on the legality of the provisional legislature.
[00:19:04] Colin Cohen: Well, the case, which I remember most, we acted for the domestic helpers in the two-week rule. Which went all the way to the privy council, gloriously lost. If your contract was terminated for any reason whatsoever, you had to leave Hong Kong within two weeks.
And that was held to be in accordance with the laws at the time. But nowadays, a two-week rule is there, but everybody able to get discretion to waive it, et cetera. Dealing with all these difficulties and not necessarily getting the right result, but getting people attuned into what was happening, which I enjoyed very much.
[00:19:35] Gladys Li: Yes, and what was remarkable about the Right of Abode cases was that the Court of Final Appeal under Andrew Li set up a procedure whereby poor Michael Hartman for umpteen years was sitting there hearing individual cases. And this was not your typical judicial review. He was actually deciding whether people had made a claim for right of abode, which would entitle them to the benefit of the government's concession. But he was doing that for pretty much 10 years or so. And so I was doing it for pretty much. 10 years or so as well. But fortunately I had some juniors.
[00:20:19] Colin Cohen: Now, moving on a little bit. I want to ask you about your growing interest in politics around this time. It's after 97 in the 2000, you were a founding member, Civic Party. Tell us about your involvement.
[00:20:30] Gladys Li: Well, Colin, if you remember, there were a hundred founding members. We had been beavering away, thinking about the idea of setting up a political party. It was just somebody's idea, and not forgetting that before that we had a small number formed what was called the article 23 concern group. And that was an exercise in, again informing the public, what article 23 was about. And the existing laws on those areas that the Hong Kong government was required to legislate on under article 23. It wasn't a political thing, it was just so that people knew what the law was, and then after that we formed what was called the article 45 concern group. Which was to do with the election of the Chief Executive, looking at it prospectively. I think all of that background morphed into the idea, well maybe it would be a good idea to set up a political party. But, I guess one can say that's now history.
[00:21:33] Colin Cohen: Yeah, I think so as well. Just moving a little bit, you've been a great supporter of the open university of Hong Kong. And in particular with regard to prisoners rights, explain a little bit more about your involvement with the prisoner's rights.
[00:21:46] Gladys Li: I think my general interest was through my involvement with the Open University, which had started life as the Open learning institute. And I was on the council of the Open University. The method of teaching of Open University lended itself to helping prisoners who were interested. So one category of the scholarship and bursary scheme that I set up was for prisoners. And then again by chance I was asked by John Clancy to do a case for a prisoner who at the time had served a pretty long sentence and had no idea what he needed to do, when he could expect any hope of getting early release. And it just seemed that it was not a good way of trying to rehabilitate people and saying, you have got the possibility of being let up. And I challenge some of the procedures and the lack of available information.
[00:22:51] Colin Cohen: And of course, in my case with acting on [Nancy Kissel], we tried to argue that you should be given some indication. And of course, in the end, we didn't succeed in that. We didn't get very much further with it at all. But now, you do know when you get released, maybe a year beforehand.
[00:23:06] Gladys Li: But I think that, really, if you're looking at reformation and rehabilitation. You need to give people a pretty concrete goal in order to achieve that. And do we want to keep people in prison, upwards of 30 years, 40 years or whatever. I would think the answer is no.
So obviously, it's a system which I think should be developed to work both in the interests of society as a whole and the interest of the individual prisoner.
[00:23:35] Colin Cohen: Yes, I entirely agree with you. It's an area of law which I'm very concerned with at the moment. Tell our listeners another interesting thing, you did set as a deputy High Court Judge. Did you enjoy that?
[00:23:46] Gladys Li: Actually, I had pretty much decided quite early on that I didn't want to be a judge. But I felt kind of duty bound to at least try it. So I had two spells and decided it was definitely not for me.
[00:24:04] Colin Cohen: Also, I should tell our listeners that you are a tax expert, especially here in Hong Kong. Because I was a deputy chairman of the inland revenue review boards and a very difficult case with London, silk for the taxpayer, and you're acting for the ILD and a very complicated case, which I had to preside over.
[00:24:21] Gladys Li: I wouldn't say, I was an expert unless you become an expert after doing one case. Because I'd had a couple of cases, and I was happy to take it on, and I think your decision stands as absolutely good law.
Of course, I rather suspect that quite a lot of companies and tax advisors were giving advice, which turned out essentially to be wrong.
[00:24:44] Colin Cohen: Correct, and as a case I quite enjoyed doing, but it was a very stressful case. As you can well imagine, for a Solicitor.
[00:24:50] Gladys Li: I don't know why you're so modest. Why do you say for a solicitor?
[00:24:54] Colin Cohen: Such a very practice, in one minute I'm doing the judicial reviews, then I'm doing other cases. And then I sit on the inland revenue review board, just as a normal member. They might get appointed as the deputy chairman. And you know it really was hard, hard work. Because you have all the other things going on in my life at that time. That's what I mean, I don't mean capabilities.
[00:25:12] Gladys Li: But I do think actually a Jack or Jill of all trades is a very good thing because my practice was a very mixed practice. And so I got pitched into doing things that I hadn't done before. And I think it's all excellent experience. You're learning all the way.
[00:25:27] Colin Cohen: We are. But it's right, it's a varied career because you have done everything in your legal career. Coming up to date, you were in the court of final appeal recently, and the definition of those people, the onlookers. Interesting decision, and riot cases as well, interesting work.
[00:25:42] Gladys Li: Interesting legally, because there seemed to me to be lots of gaps, if I can put it that way. That needed to be to avoid any uncertainty. Because the last thing that you want is for people unconsciously to be drawn into being convicted of riots. It's a serious offense with serious penalties. I think the sooner that people know when they are crossing the line, the better. So I always feel that whether its judicial review or criminal law, that these appeals should be recognized for the contribution they make to clarifying the law.
I don't think people should be made to pay costs if they're actually helping to clarify the law one way or the other.
[00:26:28] Colin Cohen: it is an interesting case, and we're doing in our practice, of his riot cases right now. And I got caught up in it and I think the case, did throw some light on matters to enable the judges to really think very carefully.
And, as you quite rightly say, the consequences. Now, I'm also interested in another area. I've got a recently, a nice letter from you from the section of Justice. Justice is the Hong Kong section of the international commission of jurists, of which you are the chairman. The list used to be quite long now, but at least it's getting smaller and smaller. It was a very distinguished and eminent people on there.
[00:27:05] Gladys Li: I got involved because of Albert Sanguinetti. And Alberto, along with Brian and I forget his surname, [Brian Suttel], That's right but he was then president of the law society. They together set up Justice in Hong Kong. Albert used to go as an observer to criminal trials around Southeast Asia, and of course took a great interest in criminal justice. So we were in the early days of the bill of human rights awareness in Hong Kong. We used to go to these Fora conducted by the government. And put in representations and whatever. But I think that those of us were active soon got drawn into other things.
So it's become really pretty moribund by now. And we are always thinking of ways of what can we do now to make it active or more relevant. But I think it's time we may be convened a full meeting of all the members and took a decision about it.
[00:28:06] Colin Cohen: Well I think we should, and I think we should continue. We're living today, coming to the very present, quite a polarized society. We have COVID, we've had difficulties, We have a chief executive election coming up soon.
What would you like to happen? How do you see things moving forward from your perspective?
[00:28:24] Gladys Li: Well, I honestly would like to see less emphasis on national security. Less emphasis on COVID and a coming together of people who have always cared about Hong Kong and continue to care about Hong Kong. And just having an open and frank discussion about where we should go. Because I think the point where we either just drift along and things are completely out of our hands, or if there's any meaning at all to Hong Kong people administering Hong Kong, then I think we should have a say. I honestly don't think that at the end of the day, there is so much difference that we can't come to a consensus about how we should move on from here.
[00:29:15] Colin Cohen: I entirely agree. You've been a barrister for many years. Do you see yourself retiring anytime soon, or do you keep fighting the good fight?
[00:29:23] Gladys Li: I've always been doing the last case. I've always been saying, I will retire after. So I am currently saying I will retire after this case.
[00:29:34] Colin Cohen: I hope you do not. And you keep fighting the good fight. Finally, I just ask all my guests, this question, your thoughts on the future of Hong Kong, you're here to stay?
[00:29:44] Gladys Li: Well, let me put it this way. I have no plans to leave.
[00:29:47] Colin Cohen: That's perfect.
[00:29:48] Gladys Li: And honestly, I'm not sure where I would go to if I did.
[00:29:52] Colin Cohen: Well like me, I arrived here in 1981, where would I go? Of course, I miss my football. I like going back home and seeing people and all the rest as well. Gladys, thank you so much for joining us on Law & More.
[00:30:04] Gladys Li: Thank you for asking me, I've enjoyed it very much.