The Fanling Conspiracy

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Jacob and Wai were as good as their word. At 11.00 am the next morning they appeared at the office with a number of box files. Ben put them on the shelves in the conference room. He sat down with Jacob and Wai as they took him carefully through the history of the proceedings. Dylan of course was nowhere to be seen, he must have had another late night.

The government had issued High Court proceedings in 1992, asking the court to make an order for a Declaration of Trust to be made in respect of the Kun, with various trustees to be appointed. The affidavit in support of the application criminally, in Jacob and Wai’s opinion, made no reference to the claim by the Tang Clan for ownership of the Kun, despite the fact that they had been writing consistently to the Government over the past 30 years on the subject. A claim was also made by the present resident abbot of the Kun for ownership, one Reverend Wah, which in the boys’ opinion was totally without merit. A local Fanling businessman, one Chan Chi Wah, had also been made a party to the proceedings, as an alleged interested member of the public, who had put his own trust scheme forward for the Kun. The boys insisted he was a crook, only in it for himself and his cronies, to cream the profits of the Kun. He was triad backed, they insisted.

The Tang Clan finally found out about the proceedings in 1994, when Wai became involved in the case. He was living in London at the time as a law student, and his father told him the story over the telephone. Not knowing what to do, Wai instructed a law firm in London to look at the case. The firm employed a summer student at the time, Jacob Rosenthal, to carry out some research. Wai and Jacob became friends, and it became obvious to them that a Hong Kong firm would have to be instructed. Wai persuaded Jacob to put his career as a barrister on hold for a while, and travel to Hong Kong to assist in the case. Jacob was happy to do so. Jacob was thirty-five years old. An intellectual, tall, lean, with De Niro features, he was an introverted person, and had always felt that he would never be happy as an advocate. He was certainly happy to take a chance, especially as Wai had promised him a cut of the Tang Clan millions if they won the case.

Wai was very happy to have him there. He saw Jacob as a professor-type person, and respected his opinions very much. Wai had grown up in one of the six clan villages, and had been made aware of the importance of the Kun to the Clan from an early age. He was therefore as appalled as the rest of the Clan with the stance of the Government, but he knew that he needed help. Jacob had been of great support over the past two years, but now it was time to get serious. Wai was tall for a Hong Kong Chinese, and could be said to be ruggedly handsome. He was twenty-eight years old, younger than Jacob. Upon his return to Hong Kong with Jacob, they were given a small apartment by the Clan rent free, which served as their home. Each had a small room for which they were both grateful. Neither had much money. The salary from Roberts McCann would be a godsend.

After a couple of hours, Ben felt that he had the basics in his head. The firm would file Notice to Act the following day, which would put the firm formally on the record as acting for the Tang Clan. The Clan had nominated five members as representatives for the purposes of the litigation. These five representatives were named as Plaintiffs in the proceedings, by virtue of an earlier order by Judge Chang. And therein lay another difficulty.

Judge Arnold Chang Wai-yee was a well-respected judge of the High Court, and Ben respected his legal skills. Ben would normally have had no qualms with his appointment as the trial judge in this case. The problem was, Judge Chang was a devout Buddhist. There was no dispute that the monastery was a Buddhist institution. The Clan was claiming however that the Kun was certainly not a Buddhist place of worship. Would the Judge’s religious beliefs affect his judgment? Ben hoped not, but considered an application to remove him as the trial judge. After much deliberation with the boys, it was felt there was too much to lose by making the application. If the judge refused it, then he may look unkindly upon Ben’s clients for the rest of the case. It just was not worth the risk.

Trial would start on 3rd March. It was now early October. Five months to go. Not very much time. The first real test was a pre- trial review hearing which would take place before Judge Chang on 10th October, the following Tuesday. Ben was a little apprehensive about this, and wondered whether the hearing had come a little too soon.

“Normally we would instruct Counsel to take the hearing”, said Jacob, “but we would rather save the money for the more serious stuff. The Government will only be sending along their handling solicitor, and so it should be no problem for you”

After consideration, Ben agreed. He had been before Judge Chang himself many times, and he held no terrors for him. The hearing was merely to give directions for the conduct of the trial, and preparations for it. No problem. Jacob and Wai left the office just before lunch, politely refusing Ben’s offer of a curry across the road at the local Indian.

Dylan came in about 12.30pm.
“Time for lunch, eh?” he chirruped to no-one in particular. “Look at the paper”, said Ben. “You’re famous, man.”

Dylan looked at the South China Morning Post handed to him by his partner. There it was on page three, “Solicitor in fighting charge”. It went on, “ Mr. Dylan Zimmerman Roberts, solicitor, appeared in Eastern Magistracy yesterday, where he was charged with fighting in a public place. Mr. Roberts pleaded not guilty to the charge. The case was adjourned to 11th November 1996, when the trial will take place. Mr. Roberts is a Hong Kong resident who has been practicing as a solicitor in Hong Kong for ten years. He is also well known as a director in local entertainment company Asian Entertainment Ltd., who have brought well-known artists such as Bon Jovi and INXS to Hong Kong.”

“Wow! What great publicity!” said Dylan. “ Do you know how much we would have had to pay the Post for such an advert?”

“I assume you are joking”, said Ben.

“Not at all. Seriously, Donny will be really pleased.” Donny was Dylan’s partner in A.E.L. Dylan had a ten per cent share in the company, which he shared with Ben.

“Dylan, it doesn’t exactly put the firm in a good light, does it?”

“Come on, people will forget about it after a while. Especially when we make our millions from the Tang Clan case.”

Ben smiled. He could not be angry with Dylan for long. It was because of Dylan that he joined the firm.

In 1988 Ben had been working in London with a small City firm, bored out of his mind with enforcing judgments for banks. He wanted something different. A colleague pointed out an advert in the Times, a Hong Kong firm was looking for a young litigation solicitor. Ben had posted his curriculum vitae without giving it another thought. He was surprised a week later to receive an offer of interview in Oxford Street. Ben got on really well with the partner who interviewed him, mainly because of their common interest in football, and he was offered the job. A month later he and his wife Debbie were in Hong Kong.

The first year was a delight for them both. It felt as though they were on a long holiday. Hong Kong was nothing like what they had imagined, there were beaches, mountains, classic scenery, sunshine, and an almost British way of life, despite being in the presence of six million Chinese. There were also the holidays – Bali, Thailand, Malaysia, even Australia. It was almost a dream come true. Unfortunately, Ben fell out with one of the partners at the office, and he was determined to get away. He was lucky in that he was able to join one of the top Chinese firms in town, who treated him royally and made him a partner after two years.

It was with this firm that Ben had his most financially lucrative years in Hong Kong. The firm paid very good salaries, and Ben was not overworked. He even had the time to set up his own rock band – having learnt rhythm guitar from scratch – which became very popular, even hitting the TV on one occasion. Life was good.

Enter Dylan Roberts. Ben first met Dylan in a girlie bar in Manila in 1990, when Ben had to pay his bar bill after he had ran away with his hooker without paying. He should have realised even then, thought Ben. Dylan worked at the time for a leading Hong Kong solicitors’ firm, and he had a reputation at the time as being shit hot. He was also good fun to be with, very generous, and he and Ben became friends, although not seeing each other that often. Dylan left his firm in 1992 to join a friend of his, Colin Kershaw, who had been a sole practitioner. Kershaw Roberts was in essence a criminal outfit, employing a battery of clerks who would bring in the cases. Ben would meet Dylan irregularly and become enthralled by his stories. He also became friends with Colin. It was only a matter of time before Ben joined them, but he put off the evil day for some time.

In 1995 Ben’s firm fell out with their major client. Ben was still in the client’s favour however, and he was persuaded by Dylan that this was the best time to leave. After much deliberation – his wife was dead against it – he agreed. Ironically, the client did follow Ben, but the fees the client would allow them to charge meant that the firm never made much money on the deal.

Ben had now been with the firm for five years. Colin Kershaw had unexpectedly returned to England shortly after Ben joined, on his wife’s insistence. It was now just Ben and Dylan. Any ideas Ben had of instant riches were long forgotten. His rock band – The Suckers – had not played for two years. He worked far longer hours than he had ever done at his previous two firms, and for less money. Ben and Dylan shared profits equally, the problem was that there was invariably little profit at the end of the month. It was a constant battle to pay the wages of the staff. And yet, despite all of this, Ben was happy. He was his own boss, he could come in when he liked. There was only one black cloud on Ben’s horizon.

Debbie had left him a year earlier. She had returned to England, saying that she could no longer put up with having little money in Hong Kong, and hardly seeing Ben due to his long hours. Ben pleaded with her to stay, but she had had enough. She was now living with her parents in Durham. Ben called her often, they were still friends, and Ben hoped they would eventually get back together. They had no children. Money was the problem, and Ben had high hopes that the Tang Clan case would not only save the firm, it would save his marriage. Ben had moved to a small flat in North Point, to the east of Hong Kong island, to save money.

“Come on, then”, sighed Ben, “lets get that curry.”

Like passed uneventfully for the next few days. Dylan won a trial in the magistracy, a rare event, which he celebrated by getting hopelessly drunk. Luigi settled a personal injury case, which brought in some well-needed income for the firm. Unfortunately, that raised the issue of Luigi’s commission. He should have received 35% of the total fees in the case, but the firm simply could not afford to give away that amount at the moment.

“Look, Luigi”, pleaded Ben, “you know we’re good for it, it’s not as though you’re not going to get paid”.

“Tell that to Gabriella back home, man, the kids are starving”. Yet despite Luigi’s protestations, he was a team player, and actually an excellent lawyer, and generally accepted the situation. Tyler also depended on commission to a lesser extent. Ben tried to pay his commission on time, being one of his best mates, but it was not always possible. Ben admitted that he took advantage of Tyler’s good nature. Dylan would often argue that Tyler lacked the commitment that the firm needed, but Tyler was the workhorse of the firm, always the one to attend the middle of the night police station visits, or a mitigation at far-flung courts. Even Dylan accepted that.

The morning of the pre-trial review before Mr. Justice Chang arrived. Ben made sure to arrive nice and early at the High Court building. Dylan turned up too. They met Jacob and Wai at the court canteen and took the lift upstairs to Court 25. It was a thirty- minute appointment scheduled to start at 9.30am. They took their places in court a couple of minutes beforehand, Dylan and Ben sitting at the extreme right of the front row, Jacob and Wai sitting behind them. A Mr. Connell, acting for the local businessman, sat at Ben’s far left. They nodded at each other. The Government Crown Counsel, whom Jacob had said was named Miss Lam, would be sitting between them both, but there was no sign of her. Reverend Wah was sitting in the row behind, to the far left of Jacob and Wai. He had no lawyer in court.

At precisely 9.29am the door opened and Government Crown Counsel appeared. Ben’s first thought was, oh my God. No doubt the same could be said of Dylan.

The woman was simply gorgeous. About 5 feet 8 inches tall, long flowing black hair past her shoulders, and one of the shortest mini- skirts that Ben had ever seen in a courtroom. It served to showcase a pair of magnificent long legs. She wore a black tailored jacket to go with her black skirt, and a white shirt. Her face was beautiful too. Blood-red lipstick. She sat down delicately between Connell and Ben. He caught a whiff of her perfume. It was intoxicating. Ben loved his wife, but at that moment he was sure that he would divorce her and leave his children (if he’d had any) for one night of passion with this woman. He saw that she was speaking to him.

“Hi. I’m Mandy Lam.”

Ben stared at her. Eyes like cinnamon. Pull yourself together man. “Yes...yes, hi, I’m Ben McCann”, he stuttered. At that, there was a loud knock and the judge entered his courtroom.

“Please sit down,” he motioned to the lawyers. “OK, I have read all the pleadings and I must say they are absolute drivel.” The judge was not a man to mince words. “They give me no real idea of the issues in this case. I am therefore ordering amended pleadings, the Plaintiffs to file an Amended Statement of Claim within 14 days, an Amended Defence to be filed by all three defendants within 14 days thereafter. Do we all understand?”

“Yes, my Lord”, said the solicitors, save for Mr. Connell, who stood up, and coughed.

“My Lord”, he said, “you will note that there is a summons before you requesting that the third defendant be granted leave to take no further part in the proceedings until after the trial of the action, the reason being that he is perfectly happy to let the second defendant, the Hong Kong Government, argue on his behalf. The arguments are identical, my Lord. We would however wish to return to the court after trial to argue the question of costs.”

“Alright”, said the judge, “I see no problem, I have read your affidavit in support, Mr. Connell. Does anyone have any objections?” No-one did. “I therefore make that order. The third defendant is excused from the proceedings.”

That made it easier, thought Ben. Only the Government and the batty abbot to beat now.

“I also make an order for discovery of documents within 14 days thereafter. What about experts?” Mandy stood up first.

“My Lord”, she said in a soft voice, “the second defendant will be calling two experts. One to give a historical overview of the buildings, a second to state the position in relation to Chinese customary law and in relation to Buddhist teachings.”

Was it his imagination, thought Ben, or did the judge’s eyes light up at the mention of Buddha?

“Very well. Mr. McCann?”

“Yes, my Lord, we shall be doing the same, two expert witnesses.”

The judge wrote this down. “Now, first defendant, Reverend Wah.” The judge addressed him in Cantonese. He was told of his right to call witnesses if he so wished and his obligations regarding amended pleadings and discovery. He nodded.

“Very well. Anything else?” Silence. “Then we are adjourned. I note the trial starts in five short months, on 3rd March. It is listed for 30 days. I expect everyone to keep to the timetable fixed today. Good morning.” Every person in court stood up as the judge marched out. Connell was out of court quickly, leaving Ben sitting beside

Mandy. Dylan elbowed him in the ribs. Ben glared at him. “Go on, talk to her!” whispered Dylan.

“Shut up!” muttered Ben. He turned round to Mandy who was about to leave. “Er, Miss Lam, would you like a coffee downstairs, there’s one or two things I would like to discuss with you”.

“OK,” smiled Mandy brightly, “I’d like that. And call me Mandy.”

Ben’s heart missed a beat. She didn’t have to be so enthusiastic. “Right, lads, I’ll see you back in the office in about an hour.” Dylan winked at him. Jacob and Wai looked perplexed. What was Ben doing, cavorting with the enemy? When Ben had gone, and they were outside court, Dylan took them to one side.

“Look, it’s always good tactics to get to know the opposition, even to make friends with them. You never know when you’ll need a favour. Ben’s doing the right thing.”

“Ben doesn’t know this one. We do, we’ve seen her in court and out a few times now. She’s not what she seems. She’s vicious,” said Wai.

“Really?” said Dylan, his mind turning to whips and chains. “I wonder how he’s getting on.”

Ben was getting on famously, or so he thought. The canteen was packed with other lawyers, and a lot of them waved or shouted hello to him. This made him feel good in front of Mandy.

“Goodness”, she said, “you know a lot of people.”

“Well, I’ve lived in Hong Kong for ten years now, a lot of lawyers know me. For better or worse.”

Mandy smiled. “I’ve heard good things about your firm. You in particular.”

Ben actually blushed. “Nice of you to say so.”

“No, it’s true. My department was really pissed off when you came on the record.”

Now this was too much. Ben liked to think that he was a pretty decent litigator, but he had no illusions. The Legal Department of the Hong Kong Government would have been more pissed off if one of the big Hong Kong firms had acted, such as Deacons or Johnson Stokes and Master. Yet, it was still nice to hear. Ben stared at her. Time to be professional.

“ you think there will be any problems on discovery? ”, he said.

“Not so far as we are concerned. All our documents are ready, we can serve them on a moment’s notice.”

“Right”. His documents were nowhere near ready. Jacob and Wai were finding new documents every day, most of which seemed completely irrelevant.

“We are seeing our Leading Counsel tomorrow for conference”, said Ben. “I think we’ll have the Amended Statement of Claim ready in time.”

“You’d better”, said Mandy, “or you’ll have the judge on your back.” She smiled again. They made small talk for another five minutes before Mandy made her excuse to leave.

“Look”, said Ben. “I think we should keep in touch over this case. Although clients really want to take this to trial, as lawyers we should always have settlement in mind.”

Mandy laughed. “I can tell you one thing, Ben. The Government will never, ever, settle this case.” Her eyes flashed and there was a hint of a smirk on her lips. “No harm in keeping in touch though. See you.” With that she left the canteen, thirty or so pairs of men’s eyes following her.

Oh dear, thought Ben. He was in love with the opposition.

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