The Free Legal Advice Scheme would be more effective if users were allowed more than one consultation with a lawyer, a former director of legal aid said.
Patrick Moss, who has just retired as Law Society secretary general after a 15-year stint with the Legal Aid Department, said one visit to a lawyer did little to help people in need.
'The difficulty at the moment is that somebody goes along and shows a letter he got from the landlord, and he gets advice as to how to reply to it. But he can't then go along again and say, 'Well, this is the reply I've got to my letter and how do I deal with that?' There's no consistency in the legal advice.
'People need more than one advisory session to resolve something, because as a result of the initial advice, they do something that provokes the other side to do something else.'
The legal advice scheme, part of the government-funded Duty Lawyer Service managed by the Law Society and the Bar Association, provides preliminary legal advice once a week to members of the public at nine district offices. There is no means test for users but people who have been granted legal aid or have already engaged a lawyer are not allowed to use the service.
More than 900 lawyers have taken part in the scheme on a voluntary basis. A lawyer handles about five cases each time, spending about 20 to 30 minutes on each interview. A total of 6,422 people benefited from the scheme in 2006.
Mr Moss said Hong Kong should introduce a scheme similar to the long-established 'green form' scheme in England and Wales - available to people with capital of #3,000 (HK$46,470) or less.
There is a financial limit for each case, but the lawyer can apply to the government for an extension if more time and money is needed to resolve the problem. In some cases, the user may be required to contribute towards legal costs.
'If advice is given in a timely manner, I am convinced that it will reduce the need to litigate. It saves everybody money in the long run. But it takes a bit of courage for the government to take that step,' Mr Moss said.
He stressed that the government should not expect lawyers to provide the service for free but he described the administration's pay for criminal lawyers who do legal aid work as insulting.
'It seems to have escaped people's attention that lawyers go through a number of years of training. It is an expensive business to run a law practice. You have to pay insurance, salaries, and so on,' he said.
Nevertheless, he had reservations about making the Legal Aid Department independent, a subject currently under the review of the Legal Aid Services Council.
'Having worked in the government, I am well aware there are advantages in being part of the 'government family', where everybody knows where they fit and how to fund [the department],' he said.
'To think it is going to be totally independent is a dream quite frankly. I don't think it's particularly a good dream, maybe a nightmare.'