Scottish granny takes on Peking

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WHAT IS a Scottish grandmother doing at the heart of a looming constitutional crisis in Hong Kong, why on earth has she taken on 4,393 clients who are not paying her a penny, and how can she possibly hope to defeat the combined forces of the Hong Kong government and the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party in Peking?

These are all reasonable questions, but when they are put to Pam Baker, who is nearly 70, she simply shrugs and smiles. The 4,393 cases represent what is probably a world record for an action challenging a government's interpretation of its own constitution. By the end of last week, Baker and Company - two lawyers and one assistant operating from a small flat in a remote village - had completed the Herculean task of lodging these applications.

In February, and not for the first time, Mrs Baker was supposed to retire from her small law practice, but she was approached to take on the cases of some mainland Chinese immigrants claiming the right of abode in Hong Kong through having one parent born in the former colony.

Mrs Baker, who came to Hong Kong 20 years ago, is a veteran hand at cases no one else will touch. "Not a lot of people will do really unpopular cases," she said. "But it's the unpopular cases which really need a lawyer."

After more than decade working for the government's legal aid department, she was forced out because of her work on behalf of "boat people" trying to escape deportation back to Vietnam. In private practice she became their leading solicitor, and a champion of battered wives, when their cause was largely regarded as little more than a nuisance.

Now Mrs Baker, her Australian co-lawyer Rob Brook, and their assistant Krista Ma, a Chinese Canadian, are taking on a more formidable target. Their battle to allow mainland Chinese living in Hong Kong to bring in their children has brought them up against the local government and the National People's Congress (NPC) in Peking, both of which have interpreted the Basic Law, or mini-constitution of Hong Kong, so as to put severe limits on residence rights - although it appeared to say that anyone with a parent residing in the territory could live here.

The NPC, at the instigation of the Hong Kong government, has overruled the Court of Final Appeal. Mrs Baker says this turns it into "the Court of Semi-final Appeal". She said: "It will be a farce if we cannot establish that the Court of Final Appeal has final jurisdiction."

By seeking to get around a practical problem - the threatened influx of thousands of children - the Hong Kong administration, she believes, is now undermining the very basis of the rule of law. "It's not shooting yourself in the foot, it's blowing your head off."

The government is armed with the resources of an enormous legal department, senior counsel, junior counsel and a bevy of spin doctors. Mrs Baker and her colleagues, including the senior counsel they are briefing, work for nothing. In her premises, which are also her home, she has already lost yet another room to box files; in her bedroom there is just enough space for the bed.

The legwork, and there is plenty when you have 4,393 worried clients and their relatives, is done by volunteers. They have little chance of getting legal aid, and Mrs Baker is resigned to dipping into her savings to finance the case. She points out, without too much enthusiasm, that if the worst came to the worst, each of her six children could put her up for two months a year if she retires.

A "troublemaker" all her life, Mrs Baker baffles money-mad Hong Kong. A couple of local reporters keep phoning her up to ask why she bothers, since she can't be earning anything from the case. She has had to face considerable official hostility, both during the boat people saga and in the present case, but most people, she says, "are so awfully nice to me. I suppose it's because I'm so old".

And this time she is even getting some support from others of her profession. A couple of weeks ago Mrs Baker helped organise a rally in which 650 sombre- suited lawyers staged a silent protest against the undermining of the Court of Final Appeal. "I looked at them," she recalls, "and thought of how much it would have cost to pay for their services, at a minimum of HK$4,000 per hour [more than pounds 330] each."

It must have been an unfamiliar sensation for someone so used to unpopular causes, but for once, it seems, Mrs Baker is not alone, and, instead, it is the Hong Kong government which appears to be isolated.