Lawyers 'insulted' by offer on legal aid pay

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 June, 2007, 12:00am

The Law Society had reached a standstill in negotiations with officials on increased fees for lawyers who take up criminal legal-aid cases, it said yesterday, accusing the government of proposing 'derisorily low rates' for solicitors.

The society also criticised the administration for not allowing it to divulge fully the government's proposed rates to lawmakers and the public. The comments came in a statement submitted to yesterday's meeting of the Legislative Council's panel on the administration of justice and legal services.

'The Law Society feels constrained by the confidentiality requirement and is unable to fully argue its contentions before the [panel], from which essential information has been withheld,' the submission said.

Stephen Hung Wan-shun, chairman of the society's criminal law and procedures committee, said the government's proposed hourly rate for solicitors was about HK$425 for High Court cases and HK$300 for District Court cases.

'The proposed hourly rates equate to about 10 per cent of the existing market hourly rate for criminal law practitioners of five years' experience, and are totally unacceptable,' the statement said. The proposed rates were between 33 and 46 per cent of the fees proposed for barristers in legal aid cases in the Court of First Instance, it added.

Democrat legislator Martin Lee Chu-ming said the rates, based on the speed at which lawyers could read 90 pages of legal documents, would mean that they would be paid about HK$4 for reading each page. 'It is ridiculous and insulting,' he told officials present at the meeting.

Kevin Steel, another representative of the society at the meeting, said solicitors have been doing pro bono, or free, work for the Legal Aid Department for years. 'We are only asking for reasonable remuneration,' he said. 'We are dealing with the liberty of a person. If we fail, somebody goes to prison.'

The government had indicated it would provide at least a 30 per cent increase in criminal legal aid expenditures. However, the society said: 'We have to stress that such an increase, which may look substantial in terms of percentage change, does not in reality represent any significant improvement to the existing fee system, given that one is starting from a very low figure.'

Earlier this year, the administration agreed to pay criminal legal aid lawyers for their pre-trial work after years of lobbying by the Bar Association and Law Society. The proposal for an increase in lawyers' hourly rates was the second step in their negotiations.