Lawyers to boycott legal aid cases

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 September, 2009, 12:00am

Senior criminal lawyers will today announce a month-long boycott of criminal legal aid cases to protest against the government's continued refusal to overhaul what they describe as 'chronic underfunding' of the system.

The protest action is the first of its kind by the Law Society. It reflects a breakdown in negotiations with the Home Affairs Bureau, which administers the legal aid system, over the appropriate remuneration for solicitors taking on criminal legal aid cases.

Against the resources at the disposal of the prosecution, criminal defence lawyers have long complained of an 'inequality of arms' in cases where the accused's liberty is at stake and yet they can only choose from inexperienced lawyers, unless senior lawyers are willing to take the case pro bono.

After years of discussion, the government said in May it was prepared to inject an extra HK$100 million to pay for legal aid fees in criminal cases. Solicitors rejected the deal as 'insulting', saying it did not address the lack of parity between fees paid for civil legal aid and criminal legal aid. Nor did it explain on what principle the government was measuring how much the lawyers should be paid.

One senior lawyer who took part in the negotiations said their action was a gesture to show 'we mean business' but which at the same time would have the least impact on the public.

He stressed they were not calling on all lawyers to boycott criminal legal aid cases.

The president of the Law Society, Wong Kwai-huen, said the boycott was 'just a gesture' that would send the message that senior lawyers were only taking up such cases in a pro bono spirit, and that the rates did not reflect their experience or expertise.

The Home Affairs Bureau had promised increasing rates for solicitors taking on legal aid criminal cases in the District Court, from HK$300 per hour to HK$620. Solicitors working on cases in the Court of First Instance will see rates rise from HK$425 per hour to HK$730.

However, 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.

Ho Hei-wah of the Society for Community Organisation, and lawmaker Leung Yiu-chung are expected to show their support for the initiative today.

The legislator for the legal sector, Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee, will also further elaborate on the deficiencies of the legal aid system as a whole.