HKFP Reports Hong Kong Interviews Law & Crime

Interview: Defending the downtrodden and battling bigotry – rights lawyer Michael Vidler

Human rights lawyer Michael Vidler wants sexists, homophobes and casual racists alike to know that he is coming for them.

After practising criminal and family law in London, Vidler moved to Hong Kong in the early ’90s. Since then, the solicitor advocate has fought landmark cases for LGBT rights in the city, making a name for himself as a defender of the underdog.

In 2004, he challenged the law prohibiting those under the age of 21 from engaging in anal sex, compared to age 16 for vaginal sex. The court ruled that the higher age of consent for gay men was discriminatory and therefore unconstitutional and invalid.

Michael Vidler

Photo: Catherine Lai/HKFP.

This year, he helped a client sue Dr. Lawrence Li Kwok-chang for allegedly refusing to perform surgery on his client after learning that he was HIV-positive. Vidler said he hopes the action will send a message to others who are discriminatory.

“If you’re not going to do this the easy way, you’re going to be doing this the hard way. So it’s better that you get on the programme… and you educate yourselves not to be discriminatory, because otherwise you’re going to find yourself being sued.”

Vidler was also involved in the 2013 case of W, a transsexual woman who was not permitted to marry her fiancé since her birth certificate classed her as male and same-sex marriage is not legal in Hong Kong. In another landmark ruling, the Court of Final Appeal ruled that transgender people should have the right to marry as their identified gender, rather than the gender on their birth certificate.

Recently, he represented QT, a lesbian spouse who was denied a dependant visa because the government refused to recognise her civil partnership registered in the UK. An application for judicial review was denied, but an appeal on the decision will be heard in June.

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Photo: HKFP.

Jutting case

In his most recent high-profile case, Vidler defended British banker Rurik Jutting, who was found guilty in November of the horrific killings of two women. In court, the defence argued that Jutting was not guilty on grounds of diminished responsibility, due to substance abuse and sexual disorders.

The case is one of his usual criminal law cases and part of his work defending human rights, said Vidler. “Our job is to test the evidence, and see that their rights are protected, and that’s what we did with Mr. Jutting.”

During the trial, the jury reviewed tapes of one victim being tortured. The judge instructed jurors not to be influenced by “passion or disgust” and to weigh the evidence intellectually. “It was very challenging to see the evidence – there was some very gruesome video footage,” Vidler said. 

Comparing the case with women suffering from post-partum depression killing their children, Vidler said he still believed that Jutting was suffering from a mental disorder at the time and should have been convicted of manslaughter.

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Vidler during the Jutting case. Photo: Anthony Wallace/AFP.

Christmas turkeys 

Other than being the go-to lawyer for those whose rights are being infringed, he is also politically active in other ways. He has run successfully for a seat on the Chief Executive Election Committee twice – in 2011, and this year.

But he is not optimistic about the process’ ability to affect change.

“I’m a turkey waiting for Christmas – I don’t believe in this whole closed-circle election process,” he said.

But he does believe in trying to change things in whatever way he can.

Vidler told a crowd at the British Consulate-General at an LGBT event in November that the best way to push LGBTQ rights forward in Hong Kong is by overturning discriminatory laws through court cases, rather than through legislation.

In Hong Kong, same-sex unions are not recognised by the government. Other than pushing for recognition through immigration, pension rights, inheritance, public housing and tax are other areas that are ripe for a challenge through the courts, Vidler said.

Michael Vidler

Michael Vidler representing “W” at the Court of Final Appeal on May 13, 2013.Photo: AFP/Philippe Lopez.

When asked why these issues would not be as effectively addressed through the legislature, he said: “Because we don’t have a representative government in LegCo. We have functional constituencies which are pro-government, pro-Beijing. And with that, there will never be effective social change – whether it’s that or with other issues, unfortunately. You just need to look at LegCo at the moment, and how it seems to be in an almost permanent state of crisis.”

With that fundamental flaw in mind, Vidler said he will ask Chief Executive candidates about democratic reform, as well as the recognition of same-sex marriage, LGBTQ rights, non-ethnic Chinese education, and other issues related to racial minorities in Hong Kong.

He said he would choose a candidate who will work for Hong Kong, not a “Beijing lapdog.”

Michael Vidler

Photo: Catherine Lai/HKFP.

Shocking racism

Vidler said he has seen things change since he moved to Hong Kong, but that there is still casual racism, for instance, against domestic workers. One of his earliest cases was defending Filipino maid Achacoso Warly Cabaneros, whose employer ironed her hands, leaving her permanently scarred.

“When I came here I was just astonished by how backward people were, for instance, about race discrimination,” he said. He was equally shocked at the attitude towards gay people and people living with HIV, he said.

Things have improved since then, “but you still have to push, because [discrimination] happens on a daily basis.”

In the latest survey commissioned by the Equal Opportunities Commission, a poll found that 91.8 per cent of youth from ages 18-24 considered anti-discrimination legislation necessary to protect sexual minorities such as LGBTI people.

“And in a way, the sooner the ruling classes… and political parties get their heads around that idea, the better for them,” Vidler said. “Because those people are now of voting age.”

Bodily integrity 

He is preparing for the challenge of the case for Q, a pre-operative trans man who is challenging the requirement to have full sex-change surgery before he can marry his partner.

“It basically offends against the general human rights principles that you shouldn’t have to give up a right to bodily integrity – i.e. not to be carved up – in order to gain a right. It’s a bit like saying to a man – you can vote, but you have to be circumcised before you vote,” he said. 

Michael Vidler

Photo: Catherine Lai/HKFP.

Aside from the appeal for the same-sex couple recognition QT case, Vidler is also working on cases concerning unlawful detention, ongoing cases of domestic workers suing their employers for firing them whilst they are pregnant, cases of racial discrimination, and cases against demonstrators during the Occupy protests.

“People come to us with one thing, and it just transpires that there’s a whole series of failings, and you think, for goodness’ sake, can’t anyone do their job properly?” 

Describing the government as an “emasculated regime,” he said the Equal Opportunities Commission does not litigate properly. It should do more to educate people about diversity, he said.

“Because there are lawyers like me who will happily help people take action.”

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Interview: Defending the downtrodden and battling bigotry - rights lawyer Michael Vidler