Tighter criteria for selection of counsel
Your editorial of October 20 concerning the delay suffered by too many accident victims in securing damages in the courts highlights a problem which has been present for some time and which the Legal Aid Department is anxious to assist in solving.
You mention that blame has been laid at the door of the Legal Aid Department for appointing lawyers who were dilatory or inefficient. While I would not accept such comments as being generally correct, it must be clearly understood that the responsibility for litigating legal aid cases assigned to outside practitioners lies fairly and squarely with those practitioners. The department's role in such cases is essentially a monitoring one.
A number of measures have been introduced or are in the pipeline to better monitor those cases which are assigned out to private practitioners. These include the setting up of a working party to review the present monitoring system and to examine the ways and means of enhancing cost control and progress monitoring. In April, we issued new guidelines tightening the criteria for selecting suitable counsel or solicitors to undertake legal aid work. Under a revised performance evaluation system, professional officers of my department are required to report all incidents of unsatisfactory performance involving our assigned lawyers and all complaints against our assigned lawyers are investigated promptly to ensure that remedial action is taken where they are found to be of substance. Action may be taken against the assigned lawyers whose performance or conduct is considered grossly unsatisfactory and this includes removal from the Legal Aid Panel.
We have also set up a dedicated unit consisting of professional officers in my department who are experienced in personal injuries work specifically to monitor more closely the progress on those accident claim cases which are assigned to outside solicitors.
In an effort to reduce processing time and thus delays in commencing legal proceedings in the event legal aid is offered, the process of considering applications has been re-engineered and streamlined while the important task of assessing an applicant's means has been transferred from the Social Welfare Department to the Legal Aid Department, thus eliminating the possibility of inter-departmental delays. Our revised performance pledge (which took effect from November 1) sets a target of reaching a decision on 80 per cent of legal aid applications within three months of the application date.
All this is not to say that there is no room for further improvement; the quest for a higher quality of service to the public is a continuing one and there is certainly no room for complacency.
As for the suggestion of a mediation scheme for accident claims, in preliminary consultations with other interested parties I have indicated my department's interest in participating in a pilot scheme. If such a scheme shows that mediation can result in a quicker but less costly and a fair and more efficient disposal of accident claims, I would certainly favour its wider introduction.
S. Y. CHAN Director of Legal Aid