Row over funding of court battles
Cheung Chi-fai and Anita Lam
Tens of millions of dollars in legal aid is being pumped into a mounting number of judicial review cases - many of them challenges to government policies. And that's sparked a row about whether the fund is being abused for the benefit of lawyers.
In particular, pro-government politicians have questioned whether lawyers from the Civic Party made any gains from the court case that recently delayed the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge - drawing an angry rebuttal from the party.
The government would not disclose how much legal aid had been spent on judicial reviews, except to say that recent landmark cases including the bridge review and a domestic helper's right-of-abode case had cost about HK$4 million so far.
Statistics from the Legal Aid Department's annual reports show that HK$79 million was spent in 2009 on non-immigration-related judicial reviews, probate and money disputes, of which judicial reviews formed a majority. This was a jump of 23.4 per cent on the previous year.
In 2001, 20 of 147 applications for help with judicial reviews were approved. Last year, the department received 268 applications and approved 93. In a majority of the cases, the lawyers were nominated by the applicants, not legal aid officials.
The trend for more judicial reviews is part of a global trend in democratic countries.
The bridge case sparked controversy when applicant Chu Yee-wah said she was prompted by 'unidentified parties' to challenge the bridge's environmental impact assessment report, causing delays the government says will cost billions.
Ip Kwok-him, a lawmaker for the pro-government Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, questioned yesterday whether legal aid was being abused.
'Is there any mechanism to stop someone from making money out of these judicial review cases?' he asked.
Civic Party lawmaker and barrister Audrey Eu Yuet-mee said such concerns were not justified, as many cases were related to public interest.
'It shows that the DAB has no clue of what rule of law is,' she said, and called the attack on the Civic Party a smear campaign.
Eu said the Legal Aid Department had very stringent processes to scrutinise applications and lawyers nominated by applicants were not always allowed. Asked why such cases were on the rise, she said it showed people trusted the courts more than the government.
Secretary for Home Affairs Tsang Tak-sing, meanwhile, said police were not investigating whether the bridge case involved champerty - where a person funds a case to win a portion of the benefits - because there had been no such complaint.
Benny Tai Yiu-ting, associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong, said it would be very difficult to prove a lawyer was orchestrating litigation for personal gain, and it would be dangerous if anyone tried to 'plug the loophole'.
'Unless you can prove that these lawyers were relying on such litigation for a living ... it is difficult to say there is a case of champerty,' Tai said. 'In fact, most senior counsels could possibly earn three to four times more than they get from legal aid cases because the Legal Aid Department caps attorneys' hourly charges.'
The amount of legal aid, in HK dollars, that Chu Yee-wah was awarded to fight the cross-border bridge project