I refer to Cliff Buddle's report headlined, 'Inquest agony to continue', which appeared in the Sunday Morning Post on January 18 and should like to make some clarifications for the benefit of your readers.
The Government has reviewed the scope of legal aid and the operation of the Legal Aid Ordinance (Cap. 91), and has released a document on the findings and recommendations for public consultation. One of the recommendations is to extend legal assistance to cover coroners' inquests under certain conditions.
As pointed out by Mr Buddle, the Government proposes that a person who has been issued a legal aid certificate may be provided with legal assistance when attending a coroner's inquest, if such assistance is considered necessary for the proper conduct of the proceedings for which legal aid has been granted.
The Legal Aid Department has in the past issued legal aid certificates to persons to pursue their civil claims before a verdict is delivered by the coroner's court. Under the proposal, these persons may be provided with legal assistance at a coroner's inquest if such assistance is considered necessary for the proper conduct of their claims.
I should add that the purpose of a coroner's inquest is to investigate the cause of a person's death. It is not a forum for determining any question of civil liability and formal legal representation should not be necessary.
Having said that, we agree that it is possible that a person may attract criminal liability or lose his livelihood as a result of giving evidence. Therefore, we are proposing that legal assistance should be provided by the Duty Lawyer Service (an organisation fully subvented by the Government) at a coroner's inquest if it is satisfied that the person giving evidence at an inquest is likely to face a reasonable chance of criminal prosecution that would lead to a jail sentence or loss of livelihood. Such legal assistance would not amount to formal legal representation and would be mainly limited to giving advice, including accompanying such a person to attend the coroner's inquest. These proposed arrangements are in line with the practice in the common law jurisdictions which we have looked at.
The existing Legal Advice Scheme operated by the Duty Lawyer Service provides free legal advice to members of the public.
PAUL TANG for Director of Administration