Irvine to help firm linked to friend

THE LORD CHANCELLOR is to use a trip to China to open the office of a law firm in which his friend and personal adviser, Garry Hart, was a partner.

The proposed trip next week has rekindled the controversy over Lord Irvine of Lairg's appointment of Mr Hart, which was ruled at an employment tribunal hearing earlier this year to have breached sex discrimination legislation .

Before Mr Hart became Lord Irvine's adviser, he was a partner in the City law firm Herbert Smith. In February the firm was granted a licence to open an office in Peking, one of two UK law firms to be granted a licence by the Chinese Ministry of Justice amid stiff competition from 200 firms worldwide.

Colin Passmore, the solicitor chairman of the China Law Council, jointly run by the Law Society and the Bar Council, said there was "fairly hot competition" between British and United States law firms for the China licences.

He said: "You have to go through a fairly lengthy process to satisfy the Ministry of Justice and have to show a demonstrable commitment to China." He also said that winning approval for a licence involved meetings with senior Chinese government officials.

Jane Coker, the London solicitor who successfully brought a claim for sex discrimination against Lord Irvine, said she was very surprised by the fact that the Lord Chancellor would be opening an office of the law firm that had previously employed Mr Hart.

She said: "It's rather odd that the only firm that has a special adviser at the Lord Chancellor's department is also having his office opened by the Lord Chancellor. I cannot believe that any old firm can ask the Lord Chancellor to open their office."

She also suggested that there was a moral problem with the Lord Chancellor's visit in the light of China's recent human rights record.

Mr Hart said it was "a pure fluke" that the Lord Chancellor's visit coincided with the opening of his former firm's offices. He said that when he was appointed special adviser to Lord Irvine 18 months ago he had had to sever all ties with his firm.

Lord Irvine will also meet senior figures in the Chinese government, where he will fly the flag for British law firms. Mr Hart said this was as much a matter of asking the Chinese how British lawyers could help them as how much they could help UK lawyers.

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