Consensus needed on legal resources

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 September, 2009, 12:00am

A boycott of legal-aid cases by criminal lawyers would normally raise grave concerns. Thankfully, in this case, it is only a symbolic protest next month by a handful of lawyers. It will not deprive people who cannot afford legal representation of the fundamental right of equal access to justice. Even so, it should be taken seriously.

It is unprecedented for the Law Society to endorse this action by members of its criminal law committee. And the society's president has not ruled out the extreme step of lawyers dropping legal-aid cases altogether. That reflects the frustration of senior criminal lawyers at the government's continued refusal to correct what they say is chronic underfunding of the system. This is despite the government offering to increase funding for legal-aid fees in criminal cases from HK$90 million to HK$190 million, which would raise lawyers' fees by 120 to 400 per cent depending on individual cases. And that follows a breakthrough two years ago, when lawyers won a long-fought battle for payment of fees for pre-trial preparation of legal-aid cases.

On the face of it, the lawyers have done well when the financial crisis has constrained government spending. A very public campaign for even more pay seems unlikely to attract much sympathy in a city where lawyers are already among the world's best paid. Despite the substantial increase in government funding, however, research by the Legislative Council Secretariat shows Hong Kong's spending per capita on legal aid falls far short of the levels in some other common-law countries. The resources available for preparation of cases are at the centre of the dispute. Lawyers claim the fees barely cover their expenses, which makes them reluctant to take on too many cases. This goes to the heart of our judicial system: the right of all who face a judge to have the fairest trial possible. In criminal cases, where a person's liberty may be at stake, the goal should be legal representation that matches the prosecution's. The government and Law Society must redouble efforts to reach consensus on resources and perhaps reforms that will make the system work better.