Enhanced screening procedures in which torture claimants will be legally represented during their application hearings will be implemented by September or October this year.
This will be followed by legislation that will provide statutory authority to the new procedures, according to a government paper issued to legislators yesterday. The proposed legislation will be discussed with lawmakers at the end of the year.
The United Nations' Convention against Torture has been applied to Hong Kong since 1992. Under the convention, Hong Kong shall not expel, return or extradite a person to another state where there are substantial grounds for believing that the person would be in danger of being tortured.
However, the Hong Kong government had long been criticised for failing its responsibilities under the convention, and in December last year, the High Court condemned the current procedure as being unfair.
In the paper released yesterday, the government said it accepted the court's view that legal representatives of torture claimants should be present at screening interviews and that the administration should make available publicly-funded legal assistance to the claimants who lack economic means.
'We would revise the relevant procedures and guidelines to allow legal representatives of claimants to be present at screening interviews. We'd also allow attendance of legal representatives at petition hearings. Besides, the administration is exploring the provision of publicly-funded legal assistance to the claimants who do not have such means,' the paper said. It said the government was still discussing with various parties on how to provide such services.
'If an agreement is reached, we would, through subvention to the relevant service providers under a pilot scheme, provide legal assistance to those claimants who have such an economic need during the screening process, including the provision of legal advice on the grounds for the claim and the petition, as well as legal representation of the claimants in petition hearings,' the paper said.
As of mid-June, there were 5,053 claims pending screening, the paper says. The Law Society and Bar Association issued a joint paper earlier this year urging a comprehensive screening process that included an assessment of refugee status.
But the paper stressed the government's position on the 'refugee convention remains unchanged, that is, the convention does not apply' to Hong Kong 'and the administration doesn't have the obligation to handle refugee status determination'.