The government plans to widen people's access to legal aid by lowering the bar for eligibility in a major review.
Under current rules, people with financial resources of less than HK$175,800 - a calculation based on assets and income - are eligible for full legal aid, while those with a sum below HK$488,400 can apply for supplementary legal aid. The government wants to raise the amounts to HK$260,000 and HK$1 million respectively, so that more people are eligible for aid.
Secretary for Home Affairs Tsang Tak-sing unveiled the proposal yesterday in a report to the Legislative Council on his bureau's work, but only after lawmakers pressed him for an update. This was immediately seen by some legislators as a sign that the bureau, which also oversees the city's leisure and cultural affairs, was neglecting legal aid issues.
The Legal Aid Department was merged with the Home Affairs Bureau in a shake-up in 2007. Critics of the move said that it would result in a neglect of legal aid issues and raise the risk of political influence.
Labour-sector lawmaker Li Fung-ying pressed the point yesterday, telling Tsang: 'I listened to your opening remarks very carefully ... and you seem to have neglected an area that is extremely important to the general public, and that is legal aid.'
Unionist lawmaker Ip Wai-ming echoed her remarks. 'This makes it hard for us to see that the Home Affairs Bureau considers this one of its priorities,' he said.
Tsang called the proposal to change legal aid eligibility a 'comprehensive review'. 'This is not going to be just a minor adjustment,' he said - to which legal-sector lawmaker Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee replied, 'it is exactly because of that, that it is more surprising the issue was not mentioned'.
This week, the government alerted lawmakers that it was planning to relax the financial criteria for eligibility for legal aid, as part of a five-yearly review.
The proposals will be discussed by a Legco panel on Monday.
Wong Chi-yuen of the grass-roots organisation, the Society for Community Organisation, welcomed the government proposals. He also urged the administration to expand the scope of legal aid so that even those in police detention could have immediate access to a lawyer.
Asked about Tsang's performance yesterday, Wong said: 'He has been in this role for several years now, and he does not seem to have made any effort to familiarise himself with these issues. You only see him talking about sport.'
The grass-roots organiser reiterated a view held by many civil rights campaigners in Hong Kong - that legal aid should be managed by an independent body, not by a government bureau.
The budget for the Legal Aid Department has been set at HK$753 million for the coming year, roughly HK$500,000 more than the budget for last year. About HK$81 million of this year's budget is expected to be spent on processing applications.
Some 969 people were refused legal aid in 2009 because they did not meet the financial eligibility
The government offers full legal aid to people with income and assets of, in HK dollars,:$175,800
It wants to extend coverage to people with income and assets of, in HK dollars,: $260,000
The Legal Aid Department's budget for this year is, in HK dollars,: $753m