Once upon a time in colonial Hong Kong, a government lawyer was severely reprimanded for granting legal aid to starving Vietnamese refugees: she was accused of thereby “fostering false hopes”. So Pam Baker, who has died aged 71, re-signed and set up her own law firm, acting free of charge for tens of thousands of those refugees, and proving in the courts – finally, in the privy council – that the hopes she had engendered were true.
For the next decade, she was the Florence Nightingale of Hong Kong’s refugee camps, as she embarked on a series of landmark courtroom crusades against cruel bureaucratic decisions made by the British and, later, the Chinese administrations.
Through her tenacity and courage, the firm of Pam Baker & Co achieved many notable successes for the most wretched of the earth – several hundred thousand Chinese refugees from North Vietnam who had been persecuted by the North Vietnamese because they were Chinese, and then persecuted by the Chinese because they were refugees from Vietnam.
Her firm itself became a refuge for idealistic and clever lawyers from England, Australia and the United States, inspired by Pam’s example to pit their pro bono wits against successive directors of immigration, with their bottomless purse of silks.
Pam was born in Scotland, and took her law degree at St Andrews University in 1951. She qualified as a solicitor but, after marriage to a doctor and ensuing motherhood – six children in seven years – put her career on a very long hold.
She did not return to the law until she was 50, qualifying as a barrister of Gray’s Inn and hoping to specialise in family law. But her all-male chambers rejected her application for tenancy, and she feared prejudice against her as a woman and (by now) a grandmother. So, newly divorced, she turned to the English lawyers’ equivalent of the French foreign legion, taking a post as a barrister in the Hong Kong legal aid department.
It was not long before Pam was doing good works in the territory. In 1985, she led the movement to establish its first shelter for battered women; as a founder of the family law association, she lobbied successfully for legislation against domestic violence.
But, in 1990, when Hong Kong changed its laws to turn away asylum seekers, she contravened departmental policy by giving legal aid to the passengers and crew of “refugee boat 101” so they could bring habeas corpus applications to challenge their detention behind barbed wire. The British government and the UNHCR, which played a discreditable, pro-government role in south-east Asia at the time, complained, and Pam was banned from dealing with refugee cases – and “fostering false hopes”. She resigned, qualified as a local solicitor and set up Pam Baker & Co to defend the rights of refugees.
The last, big Vietnamese refugee case was narrowly won, 3-2, in the privy council, shortly before the 1997 handover to China, a change that was to bring Pam her last, and most difficult, challenge.
She was called upon to act for thousands of children of Hong Kong residents marooned on the mainland, unable to obtain permits from the Chinese authorities to be reunited with their parents. They slipped into the territory or overstayed on tourist visas, and called Pam when they were caught. She took test cases to establish their constitutional right of abode in Hong Kong, which culminated in a historic victory in the territory’s court of final appeal in January 1999.
But that turned to ashes a few months later when the Chinese Communist party invoked an obscure provision of the basic law which allowed it to reverse the decision of Hong Kong’s highest court – which should really be called the court of penultimate appeal.
It was against this political decision – which subverts judicial independence and the rule of law in Hong Kong – that Pam made her last stand. She instructed counsel, myself included, to argue that it had unlawfully destroyed the legitimate expectations of her clients, the children whose judicially-declared rights had been so cruelly and arbitrarily extinguished by the Chinese government.
Pam began their – and her – final appeal last year in high spirits, but an advanced cancer (she had chain-smoked years of her life away for her clients) was diagnosed during an adjournment; our final submissions were relayed to her hospital bed. In the result, the court ruled that some of the children must be allowed to stay in Hong Kong as permanent residents, but most were liable to deportation.
She was heartened to hear, shortly before her death, that these children have been adopted by several UN agencies, which are currently intervening with the Hong Kong administration in an attempt to stop the children’s forced expulsion.
Pam Baker cut a remarkable figure in the last days of old Hong Kong: she had all the dignity and carriage of Peggy Ashcroft in A Passage To India, undermined at close quarters by an irrepressibly subversive sense of humour. She made no money from her work, and remained unaffected by the admiration she increasingly inspired; she was just driven, I think, by an immense irritation at injustice.
Her life made a big difference to the lives of many thousands of refugees; she was the foster mother of their “false hopes”, who became the patron saint of their legitimate expectations.
· Pamela Maureen Baker, barrister and solicitor, born August 28 1930; died April 24 2002