Accountable to Hong Kong taxpayers

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 May, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 May, 1995, 12:00am

THE report headlined, 'Legal Aid gaffe over camp raid' (South China Morning Post, May 1), gave the impression that the Legal Aid Department is entirely to be blamed for the time taken to process 388 applications for legal aid by Vietnamese migrants (VMs) who are alleged victims of the raid on the Whitehead Detention Centre.

The purpose of this letter is to explain the difficulty, complexity and the scale of the problems involved in processing these applications.

The Legal Aid Department received a total of 25,257 applications for legal aid in 1994.

A total of 10,486 of these applications were handled by our legal aid in 1994. And a total of 10,486 of these applications were handled by our Kowloon Branch Office which is responsible for processing the applications from the VMs.

Each of these applications requires individual consideration.

While the department would very much like to process the 388 VMs' applications quickly, it would be difficult to allocate sufficient manpower and resources to achieve this without detrimental effect on the other applications. Processing of applications for VMs in detention has its own inherent and logistical difficulties. Unlike the other applicants, the VMs cannot attend our office for the purpose of their applications.

The Legal Aid Department has to set up a team of lawyers and clerks for this purpose and they are required to make long journeys to the camp.

It also takes a great deal of co-ordination and co-operation between the Legal Aid Department and the Correctional Services Department to arrange interviews.

There is a limit on the number of VMs we can interview each time because of the interpretation and security problems.

Our staff must see each applicant at least twice, firstly to assist him in filing an application and obtaining signed mandates for medical reports, and on the second visit obtain a statement in support of his claim.

The processing of these applications takes up an inordinate amount of time, when compared with other applications.

Not all applications were received from VMs immediately after the incident in April 1994, and not all had a year's long wait for approval as shown in the following statistics: 1994 - number of applications received - April, one; May, four; June, three; July, 29; August, 120; September, 77; October, 61; November, 56; December, 28; 1995 - January, six; February, one; March, none; April, two; total: 388.

The assertion that decisions whether to grant legal aid could have been made during interviews shows a lack of understanding of the processing involved in these applications.

The processing of an application for legal aid is not restricted to merely obtaining a statement from the applicant.

It involves verification of the information provided by the applicant wherever possible, evaluation of the same, consideration of the relevant law as well as obtaining expert and medical reports.

We could not proceed to seek counsel's opinion on each and every case as they come along which would be time-consuming, and also not very cost-effective, as by March 31, of this year, we had obtained a total of 294 medical reports.

For those VMs who have been repatriated after their applications for legal aid, they have all left behind forwarding addresses so that we could continue to process their applications. They should keep us informed of any change in addresses, if they are still interested in pursuing their claims.

Notwithstanding all these constraints, the department will endeavour to process these applications as expeditiously as possible. The Director, however, cannot compromise the statutory duty placed upon her and she has a responsibility to ensure that legal aid will be granted only to meritorious cases.

As controller of public funds for legal aid services, the Director is accountable to the taxpayers of Hong Kong as to the proper use of the funds allocated to her by the Legislative Council.

LOLLY CHIU Policy and Administration Co-ordinator Legal Aid Department