Legal aid eligibility limits may be raised
The financial eligibility limits under two schemes covering legal aid will be raised if a government proposal is approved by lawmakers.
The proposal follows a five-yearly review of the criteria for assessing the financial eligibility of applicants. The matter will be discussed by legislators next week.
The Home Affairs Bureau and the Legal Aid Department consulted the legislature's administration of justice and legal services panel between March 2007 and July this year.
At present, applicants with financial resources not exceeding HK$175,800 are eligible for the Ordinary Legal Aid Scheme. The government is recommending the amount be raised to HK$260,000.
Panel deputy chairman Albert Ho Chun-yan said the proposed changes were a significant improvement but were still substandard.
Litigants had to put aside money for their everyday expenses, he said. The proposed limit of HK$260,000 may still put a strain on applicants' everyday lives if they lost their cases.
Community organiser of the Society for Community Organisation, Richard Tsoi Yiu-cheong, said: 'We think the eligibility limit could be raised further - to HK$300,000 or HK$400,000.' Applicants who have more than above HK$175,800 but less than HK$488,400 are eligible for the Supplementary Legal Aid Scheme. The government is proposing to raise the limit to HK$1.3 million.
This scheme provides legal aid to those making claims involving personal injury and death, medical, dental and professional negligence, where the claim for damages exceeds HK$60,000.
Ho said he was pleased with this proposal, despite the amount falling short of the HK$3 million allowance recommended by the Bar Association.
Tsoi said that HK$1.3 million was the average amount of legal fees needed to cover a trial.
The professional body had proposed a higher amount because the party that lost a case often had to pay the costs, he said.
Apart from a means test, applicants also have to pass a merit test assessing whether there are reasonable grounds for proceedings to go ahead.
Between April and June, there were 926 applications for civil proceedings and 4,051 for criminal proceedings, the Legal Aid Department says.
Of the civil proceedings, 660 applications were successful, while for criminal proceedings 1,903 were successful. Tsoi said that it was important for the department to expand services. 'Without an exemption [of the means test] for proceedings involving the Basic Law and anti-discrimination law, it is difficult to do justice,' he said.
Activist Chu Hoi-dick, who challenged the government's decision not to give monument status to Queen's Pier in 2007, also hoped that more types of litigation, such as defamation, could be covered by legal aid.
He also said the scheme should become 'retrospective' so that expenses incurred before legal aid was granted could be reimbursed.
'At present, legal costs incurred before legal aid is granted will not be covered.
'This is an important matter to activists, because more often than not we have to take action before legal aid is approved. If we wait, it will be too late.'
The administration also recommends a concession be introduced for elderly applicants aged 60 or above, by disregarding an amount equivalent to the eligibility limit from their savings.
The Legal Aid Service Council is examining the possibilities for expanding the scope of the supplementary scheme while maintaining the scheme's financial viability.
Moving on up?
The Supplementary Legal Aid Scheme limit
If the government proposal is approved, this limit would be raised to, in HK dollars: $1.3m