Social justice is more than hollow words
Earlier this month, government concessions to lobbying by lawmakers and lawyers to expand the scope of the supplementary legal aid scheme were pitched as though the government was doing its best for social justice. First-time property buyers would be eligible for some funds for legal proceedings should they wish to sue developers, although they would still have to have financial resources of less than HK$1.3 million to apply. But for property owners who may be forced to sell their homes because a developer has been buying up the remaining flats in their building, hearing such claims would have felt like a knife being twisted in their wounds. Last year, a law was amended to enable developers to force the sale of the remaining flats in a building older than 50 years if it already has 80 per cent ownership, down from 90 per cent. Then, when discussions began over the possible expansion of the supplementary legal aid scheme to include more scenarios, the government made it quite clear that it would not expand the scheme to assist minority owners faced with forced sale. So much for empowering the little guy.
One year after that amendment came into effect, a quarter of the 32 cases put to the Lands Tribunal in the past year have made use of the lower threshold. Developers close to the threshold also continue with unethical tactics. Minority owners complain of intimidating red banners reminding them every time they look out of the window that they are perceived as the nuisance standing in the way of someone else's profit. They have been denied the right to build a home and live in peace. They have been made to feel unwelcome, even in their own homes. The law is clearly in favour of the developer, and granting funds for legal assistance of these minority owners may not go very far in a real dispute, but the possibility of assistance would at least offer some form of check and balance. Developers should be reminded that any abuse of their already powerful position will be subject to scrutiny and even legal action. If the government is sincere about social justice, then it needs to show some real measures to help the people, and not just hollow words.