Cash woes threaten judicial system

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 September, 2009, 12:00am

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

The Law Society has never endorsed this action by its members before. But the society's president has not ruled out the extreme step of lawyers dropping legal-aid cases altogether. Senior criminal lawyers are frustrated by the government's refusal to address what the lawyers call 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.

Lawyers seem to 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.

But despite the substantial increase in government funding, 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.

The government and Law Society must work harder to reach an agreement on resources and reforms that will make the system work better.

This is an edited version of the leader which appeared in the South China Morning Post yesterday