Middle-class families with a monthly income of no more than HK$50,000 who cannot get legal aid will be eligible for free advice on legal procedures under a controversial scheme to help them represent themselves in court.
The two-year pilot scheme costing HK$9.2 million in public money will begin on Monday, even though the legal profession has given it a chilly response.
Principal Assistant Secretary for Home Affairs Aubrey Fung Ngar-wai said the scheme was expected to cover 83 per cent of Hong Kong households. Non-residents are also eligible if their cases involve Hong Kong courts.
Some 40 barristers and solicitors - to be paid a nominal fee - have joined the scheme, which will be able to provide up to 96 advisory sessions a day.
But both the Law Society and the Bar Association have warned that the scheme could encourage more people without professional knowledge to represent themselves, eventually making extra work for the judiciary.
Fung defended the scheme yesterday, saying it would not encourage parties to bypass lawyers but did not explain further.
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 will provide sessions ranging from 15 to 45 minutes to each unrepresented party.
Each party will receive no more than five sessions of legal advice within three months for the same case.
The scheme does not cover certain cases, such as applications for letters of administration and grant of probate, complicated legal issues that require detailed research and studying of documents, or cases involving foreign law.
Law Society vice-president Stephen Hung Wan-shun said earlier that it would be better to relax the criteria for legal aid so more people could use it. He said that while the Law Society would not oppose the scheme, it was unlikely to strongly promote it.
The Bar Association spelled out its stance in a paper submitted to the Legislative Council in January last year.
"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," it said.