Boycott of legal-aid cases may widen

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 September, 2009, 12:00am

Lawyers yesterday sent a joint letter to the secretary for home affairs, Tsang Tak-sing, warning that they might stop taking on legal-aid cases.

The letter is part of the Law Society's protest against the pay scheme for lawyers on criminal legal-aid cases, which they say has needed an overhaul for more than a decade. It says the fees hardly cover expenses.

Twelve members of the society's criminal law and procedure committee will boycott cases next month.

'The impact on the public will be minimal,' society president Wong Kwai-huen said, adding the 12 each take on four or five legal-aid cases a year. 'What will impact on the public more is if lawyers stop taking on criminal legal-aid cases [altogether].'

However, the government yesterday gave no indication it would improve on reforms suggested this year.

'The government has undertaken to increase the expenses on assigned-out criminal legal-aid cases from HK$90 million to HK$190 million,' a spokesman said, adding that lawyers' fees would be increased by 120 to 400 per cent, depending on individual cases. 'Amid the financial tsunami, the proposed increase represents the best possible level.'

Wong stressed that the dispute was not over fees, but the resources available for lawyers to prepare cases.

Legal sector lawmaker Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee said: 'Given the current economic climate, it is getting even more difficult for lawyers to spare their time to do pro bono work.'

The Home Affairs Bureau has promised to raise rates for solicitors taking on legal aid criminal cases in the District Court from HK$300 per hour to HK$620, while those on Court of First Instance cases will see an increase from HK$425 to HK$730.

However, criminal-law solicitors said newly admitted lawyers taking on civil legal-aid cases in the High Court received HK$1,600 to HK$2,000 per hour, and those with five to six years of experience got HK$2,400 to HK$3,000.

Research by the Legislative Council Secretariat shows spending per capita on Hong Kong's legal-aid system is HK$75, compared to HK$430 in England and Wales, HK$173 in Ontario, Canada, and HK$150 in New South Wales, Australia.