Piecemeal changes to legal aid system won't do

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 March, 2011, 12:00am

Hong Kong has good reason to pride itself on its rule of law and administration of justice. Judgments from our top courts are written with impressive clarity and are considered and respected by lawyers and judges throughout the common law world. Our Department of Justice's prosecutions division is constantly striving to improve the quality of criminal justice in Hong Kong, and our universities attract the brightest students and offer high standards of legal training.

But keeping standards so high takes money, and the cost of initiating legal proceedings in Hong Kong can be intimidating. The Hong Kong Bar Association, the Law Society and lawmakers knowledgable about legal affairs have been lobbying the government tirelessly with analysis and case studies showing the various legal aid schemes, even with the improvements proposed, still leave a significant 'sandwich class' for whose members there is no legal assistance yet for whom the burden of funding litigation is too great. Those lobbying the government on the issue say achieving progress is as difficult as drawing water from a stone. This is despite the government's announcement it will inject HK$100 million into the supplementary legal aid scheme (SLAS) and expand it to help buyers of new homes sue developers with which they are in dispute.

Such improvements, though, are piecemeal. Much has been made of empowering the people against big developers. But while homebuyers may not get help, the SLAS will aid only those with financial resources of less than HK$1.3 million, even though a litigant who loses a case faces a bill for legal costs estimated at HK$3 million. Meanwhile, flat owners forced to sell up to a developer because most of their neighbours have done so still have no access to legal aid despite last year's law change that made it easier for developers to acquire blocks for redevelopment. The latest government paper expressly refuses to extend the SLAS to this category of people. If social justice has been a consideration at all, then it is being applied selectively. It is certainly not the overriding principle. The government likes to sing the praises of our justice system. It is time it showed it is willing to enable the people to use it.