Law & More: The Boase Cohen & Collins Podcast

Episode 38 - Patricia Ho

March 20, 2024 Niall Episode 38
Episode 38 - Patricia Ho
Law & More: The Boase Cohen & Collins Podcast
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Law & More: The Boase Cohen & Collins Podcast
Episode 38 - Patricia Ho
Mar 20, 2024 Episode 38

This time, our guest is well-known public interest lawyer Patricia Ho, who has dedicated her life to assisting Hong Kong’s most vulnerable residents. Patricia highlights issues such as human trafficking, forced labour and exploitation of migrant workers, and explains what drives her to continue fighting for the rights of those at risk. She speaks with our Senior Partner Colin Cohen. Stay tuned.

00:00 Introduction and Patricia's Profile
00:31 Patricia's Current Focus: Scam Centers
01:25 Patricia's Early Life and Interest in Law
02:17 Patricia's Education and Journey to Law
02:56 Patricia's Experience Studying in London
04:27 Patricia's Passion for Human Trafficking Issues
04:51 Understanding Human Trafficking and Slavery
07:02 Patricia's Experience in Law Practice
10:30 Setting Up a Law Firm and Challenges
11:41 The Importance of Legal Aid
15:12 Patricia's Role in the Modern Slavery Bill
23:17 The Hong Kong Dignity Institute
25:48 Balancing Work, Advocacy, and Family Life
26:32 Closing Thoughts and Future Outlook

Host: Colin Cohen
Director: Niall Donnelly
Producer and VO: Thomas Latter  

Show Notes Transcript

This time, our guest is well-known public interest lawyer Patricia Ho, who has dedicated her life to assisting Hong Kong’s most vulnerable residents. Patricia highlights issues such as human trafficking, forced labour and exploitation of migrant workers, and explains what drives her to continue fighting for the rights of those at risk. She speaks with our Senior Partner Colin Cohen. Stay tuned.

00:00 Introduction and Patricia's Profile
00:31 Patricia's Current Focus: Scam Centers
01:25 Patricia's Early Life and Interest in Law
02:17 Patricia's Education and Journey to Law
02:56 Patricia's Experience Studying in London
04:27 Patricia's Passion for Human Trafficking Issues
04:51 Understanding Human Trafficking and Slavery
07:02 Patricia's Experience in Law Practice
10:30 Setting Up a Law Firm and Challenges
11:41 The Importance of Legal Aid
15:12 Patricia's Role in the Modern Slavery Bill
23:17 The Hong Kong Dignity Institute
25:48 Balancing Work, Advocacy, and Family Life
26:32 Closing Thoughts and Future Outlook

Host: Colin Cohen
Director: Niall Donnelly
Producer and VO: Thomas Latter  

[00:31:00] Colin: Welcome to our podcast today. I am delighted to be speaking with the renowned public interest lawyer, Patricia Ho. Much of Patricia's work involves defending the rights of minority groups in Hong Kong, asylum workers, refugees, domestic helpers, and victims of human trafficking. She's also a lecturer at the University of Hong Kong, founder of the Hong Kong Dignity Institute, a charity which helps vulnerable citizens. Patricia, I'm delighted to see you.

What's been keeping you busy recently?

[00:31:31] Patricia: Recently, I've been looking into the issue of the scam centers that I think a lot of us have been hearing about in Southeast Asia. Looking at how Hong Kong residents have been somehow conned to go work in these scam centers overseas.

I mean, this is already something that happened last year. But then, I'm very interested in whether they're actually continuing to lure people from Hong Kong. But whether the victims are continuing to go there is one thing. What I've recently discovered is that a lot of the businesses in Hong Kong, banks and accounting firms, actually continue to serve some of these companies that run the scam centres.

So I'm quite curious about what can be done in Hong Kong about that.

[00:32:18] Colin: Yeah, it's very very interesting. Now before I delve into into this fantastic work you do to help the disadvantaged in Hong Kong. Let's go back to your early days. Raised in Hong Kong. Cross cultural family. How did you get interested in law? Was it at school or was it later on? 

[00:32:35] Patricia: The day I was born, my dad looked at me and said that I would be a lawyer. Now he is not at all an imposing man, and he's not one who tried to groom me specifically. But, it's just interesting it happened that way. He's always thought that It was something I was meant to do.

Growing up, I was always the intermediary in the family. And you talked about the cross cultural point. My Chinese mother, Western dad. Mother a lot younger than my dad, and then they had four children. I was always playing intermedia role and defending the rights of my younger siblings. 

[00:33:11] Colin: So Judge, Jury, all wrapped up in one. 

[00:33:15] Patricia: I don't dare to be jury. My mother's the jury. 

[00:33:17] Colin: So, you studied at I understand, Li Po Chong United the college. It's an interesting school, that one. Lots of variety, a lot of cross culture as well. You enjoy it there? 

[00:33:26] Patricia: Actually, it's interesting you bring that up. I think that might be one of the places which really helped me to learn about or get fascinated about humanitarian issues. It was a place where, as students come from all over the world.

At the time when I was there, 9-11 happened, and I remember days afterwards, we had a Palestinian student debate with an American student in the school courtyard. And, that environment was very stimulating to me. Really enjoyed it.

[00:33:56] Colin: To study law, you went off to London. How did that come about?

[00:33:59] Patricia: To be honest, my Dad's very good at teaching me how to go for short cuts. and he's always said, you know, law is the easiest and fastest Profession to get it. And then I made the application. I went for London because I thought it was easy to fly back to Hong Kong from. 

[00:34:19] Colin: So you must have inquired, because University College is a very good university of London, one of the main colleges in London, 

[00:34:25] Patricia: Yes. 

[00:34:26] Colin: I went to University College School, which is linked in with University college. The history is very, very interesting.

Did you enjoy London?

[00:34:35] Patricia: I really struggled, to be honest, in the beginning. I ended up loving it. I struggled in the beginning more on identity issues, so I'm growing up in Hong Kong.

I'm a mixed girl who went to local schools. I stood out, and when I went to London. I didn't stand out in any way,

And it was a little bit strange for me to feel very blended in, in London, and it took me a while to kind of establish identity, figure out what I love and what I wanted to do. 

[00:35:06] Colin: But you were at university college. I presume you were always going to come back to Hong Kong. Do you have any idea of thinking of qualifying in London, getting admitted in London, then coming back to Hong Kong? Because what you did, you went back and studied on the postgraduate certificate of law.

[00:35:23] Patricia: In Hong Kong, actually. I had totally different plans. In my final year in UCL, I actually became deeply, I don't know how to use the word in love, but I was infatuated with the issue of human trafficking. I was gripped, I actually broke my heart studying the subject. And I've decided then, to dedicate the rest of my life to do anti human trafficking work.

[00:35:50] Colin: That's interesting. I mean, just to help our listeners, because we're going to talk about that, but let's sort of tell everyone in a nutshell, what is meant by, trafficking, human trafficking, there's lots of variants on it all. There's pure slavery, which is an example of, for example, of someone from the United Arab Emirates bringing their helper, their servants to Hong Kong and to UK and locking them in a hotel room, making them work and not paying.

I mean, that's one example. The other examples are, let's say, domestic helpers on contracts coming here, then they just don't pay them, had no intention to pay them, and put it all off. I mean, other examples. 

[00:36:27] Patricia: In the Hong Kong context, it goes way back. If we're thinking about the Mui Dai system from back historically, that could be a human trafficking type situation and going back again, historically we've always had big issues with human trafficking in the labour field.

I remember speaking to some police officers, and they were saying how every month when it's a payday for some construction sites, you would have the supervisors call the police to come and arrest all the workers, so they don't actually have to pay them. Because they basically bring undocumented people to work at the sites.

[00:37:05] Colin: So, so the exploitation is two way. A, to bring them into Hong Kong illegally. Then giving them the hope that work on the construction sites, maybe paying them just enough to keep them happy, buy the food, they have somewhere to live. And then promising them, once the buildings, each month's sums, and those sums never come out.

[00:37:24] Patricia: Yeah, I mean, it's much more than that. I mean, nowadays they can actually bring them in legally, but give them false expectations, false promises. You find victims of human trafficking in back kitchens, picking up garbage everywhere. You would find them as chefs, I remember speaking to a Vietnamese lady who said that their people would be staffing canteens even in hospitals and police stations.

And I think this happens when the government, would subcontract these types of services. So it really does happen all over Hong Kong.

[00:38:02] Colin: So, come back to Hong Kong, you do the Postgraduate Certificate in Laws. I suspect you didn't enjoy that course too much, am I right? Or did you? Was it Hong Kong U you did VPSLL, did you? 

[00:38:11] Patricia: I did it in City.

[00:38:12] Colin: City U? Well, that's a little...

[00:38:14] Patricia: well, look, I didn't love studying law altogether. I got really into international law and human rights law. And that was in the final year of university. And then, yes, I mean, PCLL was really just to get the certificate and then move on with getting on the work. 

[00:38:30] Colin: You defeated the examiners. You do realize I am the external examiner for civil litigation in all three Universities. 

You must have passed your papers, So, no problems as well. So, traineeship, where did you do your traineeship?

[00:38:42] Patricia: So I went straight into a firm called, at the time, Barnes and Daly. 

[00:38:46] Colin: Yeah, yeah. Yes, Yes, Mark and Peter. 

[00:38:49] Patricia: I was really keen to start working in the field that I just talked about. And it was really difficult to find a firm that specialized in this area. I was very lucky to have found one. Although it was definitely a bit of a culture shock. It was a tiny little office with about four people in it.

[00:39:07] Colin: Just around the corner from here, not...

[00:39:08] Patricia: That's right, yes, yes, yes. 

[00:39:09] Colin: Yes, And enjoyed your two years of indenture. I used the word indenture for our listeners, talking about slavery. We can sort of go back a bit, because when I did my traineeship in London, I signed a deed of indenture. It was before training contracts came into place.

Of course, that all got changed by a deed of indenture. It was meant that you have a principal. And really, in the early days, you didn't get paid anything, but you did a little bit. That then changed to a training contract. So, trainees, solicitors, pupils.

[00:39:42] Patricia: Yep, yep. 

[00:39:43] Colin: Well, we get paid a little bit, 

[00:39:44] Patricia: I enjoyed it. It was really fascinating. A lot of the work back then, I was working with a lot of refugees. I spent a lot of my time working on detention issues.

So I helped a lot of the asylum seekers seek release from detention. I actually stayed on for a long time. I stayed there for about, just under 12 years.

[00:40:05] Colin: Yes, because you did your two years and then you worked with Mark and Peter, and Peter now at the Bar becoming an eminent divorce lawyer now, totally shifted his change as well. 

So, when you went into practice with Mark, I mean, that firm had a very, very good reputation for dealing with Interesting cases, discrimination cases, human rights cases as well.

You enjoyed that work? Each Monday morning was a good Monday morning? 

[00:40:32] Patricia: Well, there's two sides to it. On the work front. I absolutely loved it. It was an incredible opportunity to really get to meet a huge variety of clients presenting issues about Hong Kong that I never knew growing up here. So that was fascinating. But, to be honest, there was this other side that was very difficult, and that was, figuring out how to be a lawyer but not earn big bucks.

And that was something that, I had to reconcile with as well, and figuring out how to stay in the field in the long term. 

[00:41:05] Colin: I mean, it is very interesting and then I know what you then did because our offices are quite close by. I had a very good relationship with Mark Daly and of course Mel Boase, who you know very well, the founder of our firm, is a great man for the Filipino community, human rights. One of the nicest persons who would always bend over backwards to help anybody.

You decided to set up your own practice here in Dominion Center. What led to that? 

[00:41:30] Patricia: Well I actually set up my firm at a very trying time in Hong Kong. 

[00:41:34] Colin: Yeah, I know 

[00:41:35] Patricia: 2019, and one of the big things I was looking to do was to think about the future of human or public interest work in Hong Kong. And I was quite concerned about wanting to set up a firm that really specialized in the social side of human rights.

It's steering away from, I think, more contentious issues because I wanted to ensure that the work of protecting victims of human trafficking and refugees. There would be a specialty in it and that we can continue on that front. And I also started thinking about how, I'm not sure how much longer these clients would be able to depend on the legal aid system in Hong Kong.

[00:42:24] Colin: When I said, I know how difficult it is to set up a law firm, I was very fortunate in having some very good clients, complex commercial crime, but also we did a lot of legal aid and legal aid became for some firms the bread and butter. Of your difficulty getting paid in the end, but, legal aid was very, very important.

So, I would suspect with all the difficulties in setting up the grief of managing a law firm and all the administration, you relied heavily on legal aid work.

[00:42:49] Patricia: Absolutely, but more and more difficult to access these days. So that's the big difficulty, and so for me, it was also thinking about how going forward and in this climate, how to venture into a more general practice, maybe develop a team with specialty in some aspects of criminal law, some aspects of family law, and figure a way out to take, this field forward into this space now, yeah.

[00:43:17] Colin: Talking about legal aid, it's a very interesting subject because in the UK, you realize there's been massive cutbacks in legal aid. Basically, there's no legal aid for civil. And in the UK and in Australia and other areas, how they make up for it is by having conditional fee agreements, contingency fee agreements. Legal aid in criminal matters has been cut, is there, but the It used to be very well paid, now it's not.

Here in Hong Kong, we're quite lucky in that we do have a reasonable, civil legal aid. Yet sometimes the legal aid department get a little bit difficult, you know. They decide your limited number of cases you have, how you assign things out on the course. Getting remunerated is always a problem.

So, for our practice now, in family law, and a lot of firms are doing family law, it's become so difficult that a lot of the firms are just not accepting work on family law. 

[00:44:10] Patricia: Yeah. 

[00:44:11] Colin: Which is difficult, I think.

[00:44:12] Patricia: It really is. Stepping aside from the financial aspect of it for a minute, but one of the other reasons why I wanted to develop a more well rounded firm is also because the communities that we serve, for example, refugees, victims of trafficking, They end up encountering all these other issues as well.

Criminal law issues, family law issues, issues of custody and all of that. And actually, in their circumstances, it's so complicated that there's a whole overlap between human rights, admin law, as well as these bases. And there's actually quite a lot of demand and need for lawyers to have experience. And I'm excited to create, space and opportunities for that.

But back to the financial aspect, it certainly is difficult to maintain. I'm looking for ideas. 

[00:45:04] Colin: It's very difficult. I mean, I set our law firm with Mel many, many moons ago. And each month, making is two things. Finding good lawyers, good trainees, and financially looking after the staff and everything. I've noticed from your website, you have some very, very good people.

You're very compact. Three or four or five, partners or lawyers, and they all seem to be specialists in family law, they seem to provide a great team. You administer them? Who run's the firm? 

[00:45:31] Patricia: Look, I think because we've already talked a little bit about how my firm looks like. One of the things that really bring us all together is passion, for developing this niche little space.

I do manage the practice in the sense that I carry all the risks bearing. I am responsible for a lot of the building of the practice, external relations and all of that. For the internal practice, the team is excellent and they take care of most of it.

[00:46:04] Colin: You enjoy managing a practice?

[00:46:06] Patricia: I did and I still do, but I must say that the stress of it is building up. 

[00:46:11] Colin: Yeah, that's fine. I'd like to talk a little bit, for our listeners to be very fascinated, but you were co-author of a bill that went before the legislative council to deal with the modern slavery bill. It was following the big case you did where Kevin Zervos gave his judgment as well.

I think our listeners will be very interested 'cause it brings it really close to home as to the real, trafficking slavery here in Hong Kong. And people don't realize how serious it is at the moment.

[00:46:38] Patricia: At the time I was representing this individual from Pakistan. Now he was essentially held in a little office around the Chung King Mansions area. And he had food delivered to him twice a day and he had to work around the clock.

Classic forced labor situation. The funny thing was that his employer actually took him into Hong Kong to do this work under the pretext of employing him as a domestic helper. Anyways, he was sent back and the employer who initially said that he would help him save up all his salary didn't end up paying him a single cent. So he didn't get paid anything at all. He was incensed and he found a way to come back to Hong Kong and he started seeking help from the authorities.

And he's a very justice minded guy. And he was just like, I've got to make it right. I've got to make it right. He went to the police, immigration, labor department, everywhere, explained what happened to him, asked for help, didn't get any. Now it was basically just demonstrating a situation, a picture where nobody seemed to know what to do about a case like his.

So, it's basically in that context that the the case was brought to court. Now, the big argument in the case was that the reason why that happened was that we just don't have anti human trafficking and forced labor legislation.

We succeeded in first instance. Now, to my mind, this is aside from the case, when we won, I was thrilled, right? Justice Zervos I think, wrote a very powerful judgment talking about how, at the end of the day, law enforcement, they enforce the law, and if you don't have that law, obviously you'll have this situation. I thought, it's uncontroversial, surely they'll now write the laws.

To my surprise, and maybe I was a bit naive, instead of actually just drafting the legislation, they decided to appeal all the way to the top. Now, they succeeded, unfortunately, because in between First Instance and the High Courts, they actually rolled out action plans to combat human trafficking.

They started training a lot of officers around town to take care of this issue. Which is actually, ultimately, good news. But I was very frustrated that it was so simple to just write this piece of law and they wouldn't do it. So, that's when I just thought, I'll just draft it together with a team.

And I worked together with Azan Marwa and my paralegals at the time. And it was not difficult. 

[00:49:11] Colin: I mean, that's really interesting. Then it got a lot of publicity and awareness. Now, going back a bit, our involvement, when I first set up with Mel, we did a lot of domestic helpers. In the early days, probably a little bit before we found the two week rule.

Now, that's very interesting, because when that came in, I remember when it came in, and we immediately judicially reviewed on the grounds that, again for our listeners, if your domestic helper, your contract terminates for whatever reason and you're being terminated, you have two weeks to remain in Hong Kong, and otherwise you then go.

Now, the argument is this. With that rule, it really means that as a domestic helper, having regard to their education, the family relationship, you are really locked into that employer. If they behave very badly and they, they say, if you don't do this, this and this, and if you don't accept the fact I'm paying you less, we'll terminate you and you'll have to go.

Now, we tried to challenge that, ran it all the way to the Privy Council at that time. Unfortunately, we gloriously lost, but we did win in the end because then the government immigration have changed the attitude that, okay, you've got the two weeks, as long as you go into immigration, they can then get circumstances, special circumstances, we will extend it as well.

But, the way Hong Kong operates, it has these two week rule for domestic helpers. And the living issues, all the other things that go with it, makes it very, very difficult for migrant workers or for the minority communities here in Hong Kong. And like in your case with slavery, yes, you had a great judgement, and perhaps Zervos's judgement changed some of the attitude of the police.

In the end of the day, the roots of our community here in Hong Kong, all of these pressures on people, they who need help. 

[00:50:57] Patricia: Well, so I, that case really helped to set the scene for a lot of the work that I've been doing in the last few years. I'm afraid, it's been really saddening but during the COVID period, I think the situation around the two week rule actually got worse.

Because you'll recall that there was lots of issue around town where, because domestic helpers weren't able to come into Hong Kong anymore, there were concerns about domestic helpers in Hong Kong taking advantage of the situation, and they started job hopping. Go change employers and get a higher paid job and things like that.

You know, local employers became incensed and made complaints and the government responded by basically changing the rules so that they say that they're putting in a policy to prevent job hopping. Essentially saying that you can't change jobs. Now, that combined with the two week rule is making things even worse because you really can't change your jobs.

Even if you can get an employer within two weeks. You won't be allowed, you won't be granted a visa to change. So, there is definitely a situation where they are locked into exploitative employers. And I find that deeply concerning.

[00:52:07] Colin: I've always felt that as well. And, I mean, your firm is the one who does the real hard work. Yes, our firm, we do a bit here. And I've been looking for my pro bono work, which I've done as well. I can really see how difficult it is. Now, you've changed your career a little bit, from what I understand.

You're practicing going full guns. You have a fabulous team. You are now a lecturer at Hong Kong University. Our listeners are fully aware that I'm quite proud to say that I have taught many eminent judges, etc. When I was doing the PCLL, I was a lecturer between 83 to 88. Now, you are a lecturer there.

Tell us what you're doing, and what brought you into the, ivory tower the ivory up in Pok Fu Lam. 

[00:52:47] Patricia: It was a surprise move for me. I was offered this opportunity to help with the clinical legal education in the university.

And I was quite interested because I was wondering a little bit about how A university clinic can contribute to the access to justice issue in Hong Kong. Now I started working with the general clinic there, and then in the last few years had the opportunity to develop the other more specialized, Public Interest Clinics.

So, specifically there's one on refugees and human trafficking. There's another one called Human Rights in Practice. And I found it surprisingly enjoyable to engage students and teach them practice, teach them how to see clients, teach them the nuances between the textbooks and real life practice.

And I found it really interesting to do that. I don't take it for granted that we have the opportunity to show them what we do. Best practice could look like before they get into the darkness that's out there.

[00:53:55] Colin: Taking up most of your time now. 

[00:53:57] Patricia: Absolutely, yes. 

[00:53:58] Colin: You, you enjoy it?

[00:54:00] Patricia: I do. I mean, I really didn't expect to as much as I did.

[00:54:04] Colin: That's good. Now, you're in the law department. I suggest when you go back after this, you talk to your head of department, Michael Jackson, who's a consultant for my firm, and I will give him directions to make sure he works hard in your clinic. Because he helped me out on a lot of cases. You should definitely do that. Anyway, I'm also one to like to talk to you a little bit about the Hong Kong Dignity Institute. Can you explain to our listeners what that's all about?

[00:54:24] Patricia: Okay, so I set up Hong Kong Dignity Institute not long after setting up my law firm.

Essentially because I started seeing a huge need for people from the vulnerable communities to get help other than law. So if we're helping them with a legal case. A lot of them really struggle with other issues with their lives. Such as, finding ways to find housing but mainly with their mental health.

A lot of them do crumble after classic PTSD and trauma. And sometimes they don't have what it takes to help them rebuild their lives. And so I just really wanted to find ways to have our lawyers and mental health experts to collaborate. And then slowly started conversing with social workers as well, and then discussing how we can work together.

So, Dignity Institute is really now an interdisciplinary clinic. Looking to build up a way where these professions can join hands to give strategic advice to the most vulnerable people.

[00:55:29] Colin: Do you get people, doctors and psychologists really giving up their time to help you on 

[00:55:34] Patricia: Yes, so what I'm actually working on is to actually have them in house, because it's one thing for these specialists to offer some pro bono hours outside of their work days. It's another thing to have them really dedicated to work together as a team. So I think its working towards the latter. Best case scenario, that's what it's all about.

[00:55:58] Colin: And one thing, which is so important, people don't realize all the pro bono stuff we do, all the helpers, all the asylum seekers, there's huge mental health issues.

And mental people don't realize, even with lawyers, all the rest, mental health is crucial. And sometimes here in Hong Kong, with all the stresses of life and the way we operate, mental health is pushed to one side and not recognized. 

[00:56:20] Patricia: And actually, there's another aspect as well, which is that because the communities so small. And so sometimes when you have, for example, a domestic helper taking a case. There's so much talk and commentry from the community that would round them and just having some support through that is so critical. 

[00:56:37] Colin: I'm just also interested on the following proposition to you. You've got a law firm, you have a charity, you do your lecturing, you're a mother to a young family. How on earth do you cope with that? How do you get your time organized? 

[00:56:52] Patricia: Uh, great people all around, honestly, that's the only way. Yeah, I don't even know how to be grateful enough at home. Amazing husband, amazing helper. In the law firm, an amazing team. And in the charity, a great team that takes things forward. So I can just focus on how to strategize and build, which I really enjoy.

[00:57:14] Colin: Remarkable. Now, you're fighting for the rights of a disadvantaged people. You've done that for many years. There's a big elephant in the room, we don't need to mention that big elephant in the room. Hong Kong is difficult times, changing times, for the good and for the bad, but mainly for the good, I think.

Do you see signs of progress in Hong Kong to dealing with the issues that are causing you concern? Are you optimistic? 

[00:57:38] Patricia: There are issues we actually can focus on at the moment. And there's room to improve the areas that we talked about. I think that, we're not working against the grain. When it comes to protecting the most vulnerable. And it's just about finding ways to make the stars align. 

[00:57:57] Colin: Thank you. Patricia, we're very lucky to have someone like you here in Hong Kong with all the hard work you do. I'm delighted to have you on Law More. Thank you so much for coming in and sharing some of your experiences. I think this is one podcast, we may have to do another one because a lot of other questions I still want to ask you.

But anyway, great pleasure having you here. 

[00:58:17] Patricia: Thank you very much for inviting me.

[00:58:19] Colin: Thanks so much, thank you.