Rise in legal aid fees insulting, lawyers say

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 May, 2009, 12:00am

The government has indicated it is prepared to dedicate an additional HK$100 million to pay for legal aid fees in criminal cases, but solicitors have hit back saying the increased rates for work on cases in which a person's liberty is at stake is 'insulting'.

The Home Affairs Bureau yesterday reported to the Legal Aid Services Council the latest developments in its negotiations, now in their second year, with solicitors over raised fees for legal aid in criminal cases.

The latest offer means that instructing solicitors who take up assigned legal aid criminal cases in the District Court will see rates raised from HK$300 per hour to HK$620, while solicitors working on cases in the Court of First Instance will see rates rise from HK$425 per hour to HK$730. Overall, remuneration for solicitors would increase by one to four times under the new rates.

But Michael Vidler, on the Law Society's criminal law and procedure committee, said the offer was insulting and that the government had failed to address basic issues such as the lack of parity between legal aid work in civil and criminal cases.

Newly admitted solicitors working through legal aid on civil cases in the High Court receive HK$1,600 to HK$2,000 per hour, while those with five to six years of experience get HK$2,400 to HK$3,000.

He noted that since criminal legal aid fees did not take into account the experience of the solicitor, the system therefore expected experienced lawyers to take up criminal cases on a pro bono, charitable basis.

A Home Affairs Bureau spokesman said: 'The government has adopted the principle of prudent use of public funds, and, considered from the perspective of taxpayers, public affordability in determining the appropriate increase in criminal legal aid fees for solicitors.'

Mr Vidler also said the government had failed to explain how it had arrived at the new rates for criminal cases.

The spokesman said the government had taken into account the division of labour of counsel and solicitors in legal aid criminal cases, and the Law Society's wish to raise the fees to attract more solicitors to take up criminal legal aid work.

The new rates are set for legislative amendment this summer.