A sensible step in righting legal wrongs

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 January, 2007, 12:00am

Criminal lawyers have won a long-fought battle over payment of fees for pre-trial work in legal aid cases. The government's decision may seem one merely of pay, but the ramifications extend to the heart of our judicial system: the right for all who face a judge to have the fairest possible trial.

This has long been the objective of Hong Kong's system of justice, but has unfortunately not always been the case. With legal fees here among the highest in the world, those dependent on the government for assistance in paying costs have been at a disadvantage when it comes to receiving the best possible standard of legal representation.

That has been because of the legal aid system, expensive to administer and long in need of an overhaul. While preparatory work for sometimes complicated trials was not subject to government payment, there was little chance that the best legal help was available. This, naturally, gave those with the means to pay experienced lawyers an advantage.

That the government has finally listened to the concerns of the legal fraternity is good. The debate had been going nowhere despite valid arguments. Lawyers were even threatening to boycott the legal aid scheme, which would have been bad for their reputation, unhelpful for people in need of representation and damaging to the system.

The government move is sensible as courts now insist on better preparation for trials than in the past. If lawyers know they will be paid for the time they spend preparing the case, they are less likely to cut corners. This can lead to efficiencies elsewhere: cases are less likely to be delayed or to drag on, for example.

The move will also hopefully encourage more experienced lawyers to handle criminal legal aid cases, thereby improving the quality of representation.

How far further reforms will go remains to be seen. Paying for preparation work is a start, though; another area lawyers have expressed concern about is payment rates, which they consider too low.

The costs involved in providing a legal aid system have caused problems around the world. As with all public services, there is a limit to the funds which can be made available.

No matter what the costs, though, the priority has always to be that people have adequate access to justice. A free and fair judicial system is, after all, one of the hallmarks of our system of government.

The Basic Law provides that Hong Kong residents have a right of access to the courts and to lawyers of their choice. In criminal cases, where a person's liberty may be at stake, legal representation which matches that available to the prosecution should be the goal. This is unlikely to be achieved unless legal aid lawyers receive adequate remuneration. Striving for such a goal has to be one of the government's priorities as it ensures our legal system is as fair as possible.