Clash over barrister subsidy

Top News | Stella Wong 21 May 2019

Many senior barristers oppose a proposed HK$20,000 subsidy by the Bar Association for fellows under paternity and maternity leave, due to the self-employment nature of the profession.

The standing committee on equality and diversity of the Bar issued a consultation paper on April 29 to its 1,504 members, proposing that every barrister who gives birth to or adopts a baby would either get a one-off HK$20,000 subsidy or a waiver of their office chamber rent for two months with a ceiling of HK$20,000. Male barristers who are recent fathers will also receive the subsidy.

The association claimed there are two or three times more female barristers quitting the profession than males every year, adding that many female barristers left the profession due to a lack of paid maternity leave.

It suggested all members pay an extra 9.3 percent in annual fees in the first three years of the scheme. It estimated the total annual cost will be HK$2.8 million, and a private fund company will charge about HK$277,000 annually for its administration fee.

However, The Standard's sister paper Sing Tao Daily learned that many barristers with over 20 years of experience oppose the proposal.

They signed a joint letter to chairman Philip Dykes, giving 10 reasons for their opposition.

They argue that it would punish all barristers since they are in a self-employment profession and that female barristers should be financially well-off before giving birth.

They also questioned the shortage of female barristers in the past three to four decades. Even if such a situation existed, they doubted the association had proof of a causal relationship between the drop in female barristers and a lack of maternal subsidy.

They also doubted the necessity to pay an expensive administration fee to a private fund company.

Barrister Albert Luk Wai-hung said he remains neutral but that he has also heard of opposition from many young barristers, especially unmarried men.

"Many young barristers have unstable incomes and their revenue is not sufficient to cover expenses," he said. "And now they need to be charged an extra fee on something that is not directly related to them."

New People's Party lawmaker and barrister Eunice Yung Hoi-yan supported the proposed scheme. She believed that the annual fee percentage hike should be progressive in terms of years of experience, meaning that senior barristers should pay more, while junior barristers pay less.

Yung also suggests setting a financial criteria so the subsidy can be offered to those who really have the need.

Yung, who gave birth to a baby girl in January, said the scheme could show respect to mothers who have to both work and take care of their children.

"Although HK$20,000 is not much, the scheme can demonstrate to other professions that the Bar Association has taken the lead to support female barristers in giving birth and encourage them to stay in their careers," she said.

The consultation will end on June 10. The association will consider all opinion before putting it to a vote.

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