'Insulting' legal aid payments deter lawyers

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 January, 2008, 12:00am

Solicitors shun subsidised cases

More than three-quarters of solicitors with less than three years' experience indicated in a Law Society survey that they had considered opting out of criminal legal aid work because of the 'insulting pay'.

The legal aid scheme also proved to be lacking in appeal for veteran lawyers, as 53.1 per cent of those with at least 15 years' experience said they had thought about dropping out.

As many as 64.3 per cent of the law firm managers polled also revealed that they had considered telling their staff to stop taking legal aid cases, according to the survey results released yesterday.

President Lester Huang said the Law Society was very concerned that the pool of solicitors taking up legal aid work would continue to shrink. 'It is most worrying to see such a high proportion of new lawyers finding legal aid work unappealing. If they are not taking any legal aid cases today, they will not do so tomorrow.'

Stephen Hung Wan-shun, chairman of the society's criminal law and procedures committee, said the problem would ultimately affect the right of the legally aided litigants to a fair trial, as they would find themselves facing a prosecution team with unlimited government resources.

Under the existing scheme, which has not been reviewed since 1992, criminal legal aid lawyers are not paid for their pretrial work.

Lawyers with 10 or more years' experience, who could earn HK$4,000 an hour in private practice, have in some cases been found to have worked for as little as HK$50 to HK$100 an hour on legal aid work.

An overwhelming majority of respondents to the survey - 93.9 per cent of the lawyers and 86.1 per cent of the firms interviewed - were found to be dissatisfied with criminal legal aid fees.

The government has now agreed to pay for the pretrial work, and has proposed an hourly rate of HK$425 for High Court cases and HK$300 for District Court cases. It also said it would increase criminal legal aid expenditure by 30 per cent.

However, the findings showed that 78.6 per cent of the lawyers and 69.6 per cent of the firms believed the proposed rates failed to take into account the actual time they spent on a case. More than 64.4 per cent of lawyers also said that the fees proposed should reflect the market rates at a discount.

The survey was commissioned by the society in November after negotiations with the government on the review of rates for criminal legal aid lawyers reached a stalemate. A total of 259 solicitors and 166 law firms responded to the survey.