in the high court of the
hong kong special administrative region
court of appeal
civil appeal no. 374 of 2005
(on appeal from DCEC NO. 299 of 2005)
Before: Hon Rogers VP in Chambers
Date of Hearing: 25 January 2007
Date of Handing Down Judgment: 2 February 2007
J U D G M E N T
1. In this matter I made an order on 3 July 2006 that the solicitors (“the firm”) then acting for the applicant should cease toact as his solicitors but that within 21 days from the date of the judgment in the appeal they should make and file an affidavit,serving a copy on the applicant’s current solicitors, to show cause as to why all costs incurred by the applicant in relation tothe appeal should not be borne by the firm. A further affirmation has been filed and the parties appeared before me on the firm’sapplication to show cause. At the conclusion of the hearing I reserved my decision which I now give.
2. As a result of an accident, which he had suffered on 23 November 1999, the applicant made a claim under the Employees’ CompensationOrdinance in the District Court. Judgment was given in the sum of $2,074,865. It was held in those proceedings that neither the1st respondent, Wan Lam Kwan, nor the 2nd respondent, Hua Xing Engineering Company Ltd (“Hua Xing”) was the applicant’s employer. The employer had apparently been ChanKam Wong, the 1st respondent on this appeal, but he was not a party to the earlier proceedings. The court however held that Hua Xing was liable tothe applicant because it was the principal contractor. Unfortunately, Hua Xing went into liquidation shortly after the judgment. Consequent upon that, application was made to the Employees’ Compensation Assistance Fund Board (“the Board”) for paymentof the compensation in place of Hua Xing. The Board refused to pay compensation because Hua Xing was not the applicant’s employer.
3. Following that, a different counsel was asked to advise first as to whether the applicant had a valid claim against the insurancecompany of Hua Xing and secondly as to whether the applicant was eligible to apply for payment of compensation from the Board undersection 16 of the Employees’ Compensation Assistance Ordinance Cap. 365. In January 2005 counsel advised that the applicant hadno recourse against Hua Xing’s insurance policy and that, furthermore, the applicant could not claim against the Board.
4. Counsel then went on to consider the matter under the heading “The way forward”. Counsel referred to the fact that the applicantdid not have a high degree of formal education. I was informed in the course of the hearing that he had started his working lifeas a farmer in the Mainland. Reference was made to the fact that any proceedings in negligence against his employer would have beenstatute barred. Nevertheless it is clear from what is stated in the opinion that there had been some discussion between counseland solicitors as to whether proceedings under the Employees’ Compensation Ordinance should be commenced against Chan Kam Wong,whom the judge had held had been the employer. Counsel’s advice continued:
5. It appears to me that, on the face of that, that it was abundantly obvious that counsel was saying that the applicant might wellhave a cause of action against his professional advisers. In those circumstances the firm, and in particular the solicitor handlingthe matter, should have appreciated that there was a clear conflict of interest. Thereafter, the firm should have so advised theapplicant and I conceive the firm’s position in continuing to act on behalf the applicant has been virtually untenable.
6. Despite that, an application was made for an extension of time to pursue a claim against the 1st respondent. That application was refused at first instance on 14 September 2005. It appears that immediately following that theapplicant was advised to apply for legal aid to appeal against that decision. The solicitor who was handling the matter on behalfof the firm does not give any indication that, even by that time, the applicant was advised that he should consider what rights hemight have against the legal advisers. Rather he was advised that a further, different, counsel should be retained and he was askedto sign a simple retainer retaining the solicitors with a view to appealing against the decision refusing to extend time.
7. The application for legal aid was first refused on 17 October 2005 following which the applicant was advised to appeal against therefusal of legal aid. On 10 November 2005 the counsel who had now been brought into the case advised that the applicant had a goodarguable ground of appeal in respect of the refusal to extend time. On the strength of that the solicitor advised the applicantthat the firm would invite Department of Legal Aid to reconsider the applicant’s application for legal aid in respect of the proposedappeal and that the firm would be submitting grounds of appeal to the Department of Legal Aid, who might contact the applicant directly. The firm then filed the notice of appeal on 14 November 2005.
8. Although the applicant did make a further application to the Department of Legal Aid it was not until the middle of February 2006that that application was refused. In the meantime, if not before, the applicant had made clear to the firm that he did not wishto proceed with the appeal without legal aid. The solicitor handling the matter suggested that the firm should continue to act forthe applicant on a private client basis and that although the written agreement would entail that the applicant would be responsiblefor the firm’s charges, the firm itself would in all eventuality not seek costs from the applicant as he was on welfare and thatthe partners’ approval would be sought to waive the firm’s fees. It was also suggested at some stage that it was unlikely thatcosts would be sought against the applicant by a successful party on the appeal since the chances of recovery would be slender, atbest. Despite the fact that the applicant signed the documents prepared by the solicitor acknowledging his willingness to proceedwith the appeal and his liability as to costs, it is quite clear even from the solicitor’s affirmations that the applicant wasapprehensive.
9. It was only at this stage that the solicitor handling the matter, apparently, mentioned to the applicant the possibility of hisseeking further advice from other solicitors and that she recommended another firm. As it transpired the applicant was granted legalaid on 28 April 2006 to enable him to obtain advice as to the possibility of bringing a professional negligence action against thefirm. It was in those circumstances that in June 2006 the applicant’s present solicitors wrote to the firm complaining, amongstother things, that the applicant had been put in a position where he was liable in respect of costs of the appeal.
10. It was in those circumstances that the application was made by the firm to cease to act for the applicant in the appeal againstthe judge’s ruling not to extend time to bring proceedings against the 1st respondent. On that application the applicant was represented by counsel who opposed the application and in the alternative askedthat it be on conditions. In the circumstances it appeared to me that the firm’s position was quite untenable and that it couldnot represent the applicant properly. It was also apparent that it would be invidious to enquire into the circumstances of the matterprior to the hearing of the appeal and, hence, although there were clearly indications that the appeal had been brought in the interestsof the firm and not in the interests of the applicant, that was a matter which had to be dealt with later.
11. Having had the benefit not only of further affirmations filed by the solicitor handling the matter on behalf of the firm but alsoof argument by counsel, it is apparent that from the advice given by counsel which I have quoted above, the solicitor and the firmmust have known that they had a severe conflict of interest and, although counsel had suggested an appeal as a last-ditch effort,the lay client should have been advised that he had an alternative course of action namely to seek advice as to whether he couldclaim in negligence against his professional advisers. Despite that, the course was taken to advise the applicant to appeal, toseek legal aid to appeal and, even after that refusal, to encourage the applicant to appeal with vague promises that he might notbe liable for costs should the appeal fail. In summary, the appeal was launched without giving the applicant proper advice, in circumstanceswhere the firm was well aware of what advice should be given to the applicant and of the risks involved in that advice. The firmhad a clear interest in encouraging the applicant to pursue an appeal rather than to take advice as to the possibility of suing thefirm itself.
12. In my view there is only one answer to the matter and that is the view which became apparent when the application by the firm todischarge itself as the applicant’s solicitors was made, namely that the firm should bear all costs incurred by the applicant inthe appeal was the correct order. The firm has not shown cause that the firm should not pay those costs. There shall be an orderaccordingly.
Mr Kumar Ramanathan, instructed by Messrs Szwina Pang, Edward Li & Co., for the Applicant/Appellant
Mr Thomas Lee, instructed by Messrs Richards Butler, for Messrs Au-Yeung, Cheng, Ho & Tin (former solicitors for the Applicant/Appellant)