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Asylum seekers in Asia

Hong Kong law firm denies it is encouraging torture claim lawsuits

The company was criticised by a District Court judge who said it had failed to submit all documents for a pre-trial hearing as scheduled, prompting an adjournment

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 September, 2016, 8:03am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 September, 2016, 8:03am

A law firm recently rapped by a District Court judge for misconduct has denied encouraging torture claim lawsuits, while a barrister who has handled refugee cases said even if there were “no-win no-fee” arrangements between claimants and their lawyers, they should not be seen as the main cause of the rise in these claims.

A leading human rights lawyer also said such legal actions, even though they were on the rise, had not reached crisis proportions.

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Anthony Lai Man-chun, who handles the bulk of torture claims in the District Court, broke his silence a week after a court chastised his firm over misconduct and warned against third parties intervening to encourage suits.

“We don’t seek a share of the compensation awarded to claimants,” he told the Post, rejecting speculation that the firm was involved in prompting litigation.

Lai said his clients were charged on the basis of time spent on their cases and as determined by the court.

The veteran lawyer also denied that many of his cases were “weak” – an observation made by judge Andrew Li Shu-yuk in a written decision handed down on August 24.

In the ruling, the judge found that lawyers from Messrs M. C. A. Lai & Co. had failed to submit all documents for a pre-trial hearing in July as scheduled, which resulted in the adjournment of the cases of five torture claimants seeking compensation for unlawful detention by the Immigration Department.

“I find that the adjournment was caused by the misconduct, default and neglect on the part of [the firm],” the judge said in his decision.

While stressing that the legitimate rights of foreigners seeking refuge were protected by law, Li stated that offences related to maintenance or champerty would be tackled.

Maintenance involves an unconnected third party supporting a lawsuit, while champerty is an illegal deal in which a person funds a case to win a portion of any compensation.

Lai declined to comment on the judge’s decision, but maintained that many of his cases had legal merit.

While admitting to handling more than 400 torture claims – about 60 per cent of those coming before the District Court – Lai said clients were referred by friends because of the firm’s expertise in dealing with human rights cases.

“Everyone is equal before the law. We do not harbour or favour South Asians,” the lawyer added. He rejected the association made between his firm’s work and the surge of torture claims by asylum seekers.

A barrister, who wanted to remain anonymous, said exactly what could be called champerty remained a grey area under Hong Kong law. But he did not consider it wrong to retain a lawyer on a contingency fee basis in certain situations, while distinguishing that from champerty.

Dr Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung of the Labour Party, who has helped many torture claimants and asylum seekers with their cases, said he was unaware of any claims being funded by lawyers.

“The authorities should look into the matter if there is any evidence to support champerty allegations,” Cheung said.

Mark Daly, a lawyer specialising in human rights and refugee rights cases, said torture claims were on the rise in Hong Kong, but they had not reached crisis proportions.