IF attorney Craig Trebilcock had O. J. Simpson as a client he'd be a rich man by now. Since June 1993, the Pennsylvania lawyer has been working on the case of his career, billing an enormous 1,300 hours in the process. But unlike the Robert Shapiros and F. Lee Baileys of this world, Mr Trebilcock - and several of his local colleagues - have been working for a fee of zero dollars an hour. The group's clients, over 150 of them, are still killing time in the local jail, York County. And although they made world headlines some 20 months ago, today they are all but forgotten. The clients in question form part of the wretched 280-plus passengers of the Golden Venture smuggling ship, which ran aground off New York after a horrific journey from Fujian Province. Their arrival, in the midst of an influx of several thousand Chinese migrants, became the focus of America's immigration problems, and of the Clinton administration's desperation to do something about it. While the Venture people no longer hold the attention of refugee and human rights groups, nor of the American people, they have certainly kept the courts busier than a hundred O. J. Simpsons. They are sandwiched in the middle of an almighty legal battle between their lawyers, who have been fighting their deportation back to China, and the Government, which is refusing to back down on what it considers a test case of its will to resist the human tide knocking at the country's doors. And an important sub-plot to the courtroom drama is China's forced one-child policy and the moral conundrum it presents to President Clinton's human rights stance. There are around 100 other survivors of the wreck in other jails, including Louisiana and Virginia. But the York County crowd are the centrepiece of the legal battle, entwined in three separate cases, all of which are fine examples of the slow torture of the American legal system. The first merely involves the lawyers trying to get the Chinese released on the grounds that they face persecution back home, most of them having claimed flight from the family planning policy. Mr Trebilcock expects a decision soon, but even if he wins, the Government is sure to appeal. In a related case, the lawyers are trying to overturn the crucial 'Matter of Chang' ruling, the cornerstone of the administration's bid to stop the migrants winning asylum because of the one-child issue. And in the third, most intriguing case, the attorneys are charging that the Government improperly interfered in the original decisions by immigration judges to deny most of the Venture passengers asylum. By gnawing away at the White House's and the Immigration and Naturalisation Service's (ISN) consistent refusal to hand over classified documents, Mr Trebilcock has laid his hand on a pile of files which dramatically detail panic sessions at the White House in the days after the Venture tragedy, followed by a decision to take a hard line on the issue. MEMOS to the Attorney-General reveal for example how officials hoped to have the migrants out of the country in 120 days. Having failed, says Mr Trebilcock, 'their next step was to drag this whole thing out as long as possible and keep them behind bars as a deterrent'. Other memos detail intelligence from the INS's Hong Kong office painting a serious picture of the voraciousness with which local cadres in Fujian province went about their task of forcing couples to have abortions or be sterilised. Despite this, Mr Clinton clearly feels that his policy of turning a blind eye to the issue is a bitter pill that's necessary to swallow in the losing battle against the alien smugglers. Meanwhile, as it prolongs the legal wrangling, the administration has been foiled in attempts to send even one of the Venture migrants home. On occasions, lawyers have had to file late-night habeas corpus writs even as the immigrants were herded into a holding centre and booked on the flight home. And next week, Mr Trebilcock flies to California to interview Stephen Mosher, author of a recent book on victims of the one-child policy, as part of his campaign of piling up enough depositions to secure his case. That's another few hours in the attorney's ledger. Not to mention a few more hours in jail for his clients.