Law bodies express concern over torture-claimant screening system

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 July, 2009, 12:00am

Barristers and solicitors are worried they may not have enough time to amass the skills and knowledge to represent torture claimants before the government introduces a new screening system in September.

The Law Society, representing solicitors, and the Bar Association, say the government began consulting them on the new system only on June 3, although it had earlier begun confidential talks with lawyers in the Duty Lawyer Scheme.

The new system, under which claimants will have publicly funded legal assistance, comes after a High Court judge ruled that the previous practice, which denied the claimants legal assistance, was unlawful.

Law Society president Lester Huang told legislators yesterday that the society was worried that there might not be enough time to train lawyers to represent claimants under the new system, to be introduced as a pilot scheme in September.

Mr Huang said the Bar Association and Law Society had learned that the Security Bureau had begun discussions on legal representation for torture claimants, on conditions of strict confidentiality, with members of the Duty Lawyer Scheme - which he described as the 'wrong target'.

Speaking at a meeting of the Legislative Council security panel, he said such cases involved advanced legal knowledge on issues such as refugee law, and lawyers needed proper training to deal with them.

'Some of the torture claimants might have experienced physical and mental torture, or sexual abuse,' Mr Huang said.

'The legal representative should know how to handle these cases carefully.'

He said the society was confident of its ability to provide training after seeking expert opinion, but was worried about whether enough lawyers could be trained in time.

Legal sector lawmaker Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee, a barrister, wanted to know whether the government had proposed a budget limit during the discussions with the Duty Lawyer Scheme members.

Deputy Secretary for Security Ngai Wing-chit acknowledged there might not be many lawyers able to join the pilot scheme in September, but said he believed the project would develop smoothly.

Deputy Director of Immigration David Chiu Wai-kai said the administration currently took an average of 14.8 months to complete one torture claim application.

The government will report on the progress of the torture claim screening mechanism to legislators in September.