Volunteer lawyer scheme shunned by legal bodies

Law Society and Bar Association say two-year pilot will flood courts with litigants in person

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 February, 2013, 4:09am

The legal profession has given the cold shoulder to a government scheme under which volunteer lawyers would help litigants pursue civil cases on their own.

Both the Law Society and the Bar Association have warned the scheme - under which the lawyers would brief parties ahead of the cases on how to proceed - could encourage more people without professional knowledge to represent themselves, eventually making extra work for the judiciary.

The groups were responding to a government call for lawyers to "demonstrate their corporate social responsibility" by joining a two-year trial scheme for "litigants in person", due to start in the first quarter of this year.

The service is aimed at parties not covered by legal aid who choose not to hire lawyers for cases in the District and higher courts. It would provide 45 minutes of free legal services to each unrepresented party, mainly on court procedure.

Vice-president of the Law Society Stephen Hung Wan-shun said the government should instead further relax the means test for legal aid.

The Bar Association said it maintained its stance, expressed in a paper submitted to the Legislative Council in January last year, that "the underlying problems with respect to the growth in [litigants in person] is not being addressed".

"The Bar is concerned that one unintended consequence of the scheme may actually increase the number of [litigants in person]," it said. "Provision of offices staffed by volunteer barristers and solicitors of at least two years standing ... may be seen by some as an open invitation to manage their case."

Hung said while the Law Society would not oppose the scheme, it was unlikely to strongly promote it.

The Bar Association also stated it "cannot enter into any partnership or association with respect to the scheme, at least as the Bar already has its own independent free legal representation and pro bono scheme operating". "Further, the bar cannot undertake to provide volunteer 'community lawyers'," it stated.

Principal Assistant Secretary for Home Affairs Aubrey Fung Ngar-wai said two lawyers had been hired to run the scheme, while more were expected to sign up as "community lawyers" to provide the free service.

The government lifted the asset cap for legal aid applicants in May 2011 from HK$175,800 to the current level of HK$260,000.

A spokeswoman for the bureau said the new scheme was aimed at parties who were prepared to take their cases to court and differed from the "general legal advice" offered since 1978 by volunteer lawyers under the Free Legal Advice Service.

"We sincerely hope the legal profession will continue to demonstrate its corporate social responsibility and encourage more legal professionals to participate," the spokeswoman said.