Critics hit out at foot-dragging over legal aid

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 September, 2010, 12:00am

The government proposes making it easier to obtain legal aid, but critics say the changes do not go far enough and accuse the administration of dragging its feet.

In March, the government proposed allowing people with financial resources not exceeding HK$260,000 to apply for legal aid under the Ordinary Legal Aid Scheme, up from the current limit of HK$175,800.

It also proposed allowing people with assets of HK$1 million to seek legal aid under the Supplementary Legal Aid Scheme, where the current limit is HK$488,400. Last week, it proposed raising the asset limit for supplementary aid to HK$1.3 million.

Lawyers have criticised the government proposal for not going far enough and say the Legal Aid Department has not provided a rationale for some of the changes proposed.

The Bar Association proposes a HK$350,000 limit for ordinary legal aid and a HK$3 million limit for supplementary legal aid. Both schemes fund legal representation. But under the Supplementary Legal Aid Scheme, aimed at the sandwich class, anyone winning damages in a case has to pay a portion of their award into a special fund, which finances future cases.

'They are not addressing the real issues and the points that need to be reformed,' said Ruy Baretto, chairman of the Bar Association's legal aid reform committee. 'They have taken an inordinate amount of time.' Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee, who represents the legal sector on the Legislative Council, said: 'Legal aid is not developing. We've been stagnant. We have given them a lot of time ...' The Legco panel on the administration of justice and legal services, chaired by Ng, meets today to discuss the proposal for legal aid reform, made by the Home Affairs Bureau which administers the Legal Aid Department.

The association, the Law Society and lawmakers are calling for supplementary legal aid, currently reserved for personal injury, dental, medical and legal professional negligence, and employment-related claims, to be extended to more kinds of litigation. A bureau spokesman said the paper with its proposals to be discussed today has 'taken into account the calls from the community and the views expressed by the panel, the legal profession and relevant stakeholders'. The Bar Association called the bureau's proposed figure for ordinary legal aid 'arbitrary' and its approach to the supplementary aid 'excessively negative'.

It also accused the bureau of 'attempting to pass the buck' on expanding legal aid to the Legal Aid Services Council. The bureau, it said, had not conducted any study on implementing amendments the association proposed to the financial eligibility limits. The Law Society has also criticised the government for failing to show how it calculated the proposed increases.

One of the Bar's submissions gives detailed analysis and scenarios as to why eligibility for ordinary legal aid should be raised. For example, under the new proposed limits, a 50 year-old-man who has worked all his life would still be ineligible for any form of legal assistance because of the 'financial resources' he had accumulated over the years. Yet, he would not be able to take legal action without risking all the savings he had reserved for retirement.

The bureau spokesman said the Legal Aid Services Council was examining the possibilities for expanding the supplementary scheme without undermining or jeopardising its financial viability. The Bar Association's proposals have also been put to the council.

Looking up

The Supplementary Legal Aid Scheme limit is HK$488,400

The government is proposing to increase the financial requirement to, in HK dollars: $1.3m