Inquest agony to continue

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 January, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 January, 1998, 12:00am

GRIEVING relatives will continue to face the trauma of inquests without their own lawyers, in spite of proposals to extend legal aid to the hearings.

Those who cannot afford a barrister are left to handle Coroner's Court cases on their own.

They struggle to understand how the proceedings work while opportunities to draw out vital evidence, which may be used to fight for compensation, are often missed, say lawyers.

A government think-tank on legal aid has suggested public funding be made available to provide lawyers for people required to attend inquests.

But this will only be on offer if they have already been granted legal aid in relation to other proceedings arising from the death, such as a civil action for damages.

Lee Shi-hei, whose son died amid claims of police violence, did not have a lawyer to represent him at the inquest.

'I found it very difficult. I was only a layman,' he said. 'I could not ask the questions I wanted to ask. My solicitor from legal aid told me he could not represent me at the inquest and said I would have to attend by myself.' The vice-president of the Bar Association, Lawrence Lok SC, said the government proposals were a case of putting the cart before the horse.

'You would not contemplate a negligence suit unless and until you have a coroner's verdict,' he said. 'This is why legal aid should be extended at the stage of the inquest.' Law Yuk-kai, director of the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor, agreed that most relatives would not benefit from the proposals because they would not be in a position to take civil action before the inquest.

Suzanne Gardner, a lawyer who has represented relatives free of charge at inquests, says experienced barristers can get damning evidence from witnesses that can later be used to fight for damages.

It would be 'almost impossible' for unqualified family members to do the same, she added.

'They are very much at a disadvantage,' she said.

'I think it is very important for someone competent to do some cross-examination on their behalf.' Large companies and hospitals are almost always represented by a barrister if there is any suggestion of negligence having contributed to a death.

A spokesman for the Government's Administration Wing said the working party recommendations on legal aid were aimed at people involved in inquests who face criminal charges or who have launched civil action.

'We do not consider it appropriate to provide formal legal representation to relatives of the deceased,' he added.