POON Ying-fai is a sprightly 73-year-old who has been active in managing the industrial building in Kwai Chung where his printing factory is based. But trouble began soon after he relinquished his 10-year position as chairman of its owners' committee last summer. In April, Mr Poon collected signatures against the new committee's decision to increase the management fee. Three months later the chairman, Chan So-lan, exhibited bank records at an occupants' meeting which showed the $3,500 monthly pay for a part-timer hired by Mr Poon to keep accounts for the building had been paid into his daughter's bank account each month. Ms Chan told the meeting that the committee had reported the matter to Kwai Chung police. Though infuriated, Mr Poon, a key member of the local association of Pun clansmen from Guangdong, kept silent throughout the meeting. But he was further upset when a notice was posted in the building lobby the following day, saying he had collaborated with his daughter. A bank record listing Ms Poon's account number was posted alongside. Mr Poon demanded an apology and says he would have initiated legal action if not for the potential heavy costs involved. 'I am prepared to spend up to $500,000 for it, but my lawyer said I could have to pay in the region of $1 million to cover the legal costs incurred by the other party should I lose the case.' He says he was embarrassed by the public notice, which was not removed until his daughter complained to the Privacy Commission. He says the money was transferred between his daughter and the former part-timer, but was a personal matter between the two. Ms Chan says: 'He contradicted himself in what he said. We just did what we should do.' A police investigation found no evidence of criminality. Mr Poon typifies those who cannot afford to go to court when they consider themselves defamed. Often the time and costs involved in libel suits discourage those who consider themselves libelled - or those accused of libelling others - from taking legal action. Ordinary individuals who proceed with the lengthy process experience great emotional and financial strain. Television presenter Claudia Mo Man-ching, jubilant following her victory in a four-year court battle against the Oriental Press Group which accused her of libel, understands the risk and strain involved in seeking legal redress. She said she would not have fought all the way to the Court of Final Appeal if she were a lone individual. Instead, she had full financial support from the Government on behalf of her employer, Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK). She says she was greatly relieved when the marathon battle ended early last month, leaving a bill of $10 million to be picked up by Oriental Press. The court overturned a Court of Appeal decision that ordered Mo and RTHK to pay Oriental Press $80,000 in damages. It restored an earlier court decision that Mo, the host for RTHK programme Media Watch, was making fair comment on a matter of public interest when in a programme in 1995 she criticised the group for allegedly using legal muscle to silence critics. Her case could have set a precedent in that the judges agreed on a broad scope to define fair comment on a matter of public interest. They criticised the previous ruling for having taken a too-narrow approach and taking the words used by Mo too literally. That may not put at ease other commentators who fear libel accusations. Wong Ngon-yin, columnist for a Chinese newspaper, was so discouraged by a libel trial that arose out of an article he had written for a now defunct magazine that he stopped writing for the whole of 1996. Wong was angry that the magazine failed to stand its ground and instead paid the person he had written about $100,000 in a 'payment into court' deal. 'I wish it had fought on,' recalled Wong, who wants reform of the law for defamation cases. 'The libel law is biased towards the rich. The rich and famous can get an astronomical amount of money in compensation should they win. I could easily go broke if a tycoon or some prominent organisation chooses to sue me. There needs to be changes in the legal system for protection of freedom of speech.' Mo agrees that protection is not balanced. 'It's a matter of money. It would be a great pressure for commentators with limited financial capability to go through libel suits. I'd be worried for them.' Another university lecturer-cum-columnist, who received a surprise court notice for libel from a top-selling newspaper in 1995 over what he had written in another Chinese newspaper, says: 'You cannot speak your mind freely. On a positive note, one can say the law causes people to think carefully before they write, but the negative effect is the possibility of self-censorship. I am much more restrained in making direct criticisms than before, and so are other commentators who feel it's too much of a risk to touch on certain subjects. It is not just money; the handling of legal documents is very time-consuming.' For reasons unknown to the lecturer, no further action has been taken yet. What also worries Mo and the lecturer, who asked not to be named, is the exclusion of libel cases from legal aid services. Ordinary people without much money who feel defamed or wrongly accused of libel may have a hard time seeing justice done. The Legal Aid Department will not fund these cases as its longstanding practice has been to exempt libel and cases involving small claims from its scope of service. A department spokesman cannot confirm the reason, but it is likely to have to do with the very little damages usually awarded to unknown figures. For example, a believer in UFOs won his case against the Oriental Daily News for a report in 1995 that questioned his plan to sell as a souvenir a piece of land in the United States that he claimed had been visited by aliens. He ended up getting $1 in damages. Joseph Cheng Yu-shek, professor of political science at City University, says the Government should consider changing its policy. 'Traditionally, Chinese people are not inclined towards getting involved in lawsuits, but the culture of our society is changing and so is our media culture. People are more conscious of their rights and willing to defend their interests through legal action,' he says. But he agrees that abuse of legal aid is one potential problem. Bar Association chairman Ronny Tong Ka-wah believes better protection of freedom of speech would be to relax the requirement for proof of innocence on the part of the defendant, unlike in criminal trials. Mo thinks it is unfair that people are denied assistance because of the limited damages awards. 'We are not after money, but justice. The plaintiff may not be a public figure, but he may be well-known among his kai fong [neighbours]. Now all he can hope for is that his kai fong will forget about what has been said about him as time passes.' Some worry that the rise of sensational or exaggerated reports in an increasingly competitive media will lead to more ordinary individuals being defamed. Widower Chan Kin-hong was a manual worker who was followed by the press a year ago after his wife, deeply upset over his infidelity, plunged to her death with his two sons. He was labelled 'human scum' in some newspaper reports. Critics of the press see him as a possible victim of libel. But ordinary people like Mr Chan cannot afford to initiate lawsuits even if they feel their rights have been infringed by biased media reports. A lengthy litigation process is costly, as in the case of social worker-turned-politician Albert Chan Wai-yip. It is now a year since he was served with a writ for libel by property tycoon Li Ka-shing's flagship company, Cheung Kong Holdings. Mr Chan had commented publicly on the company's dealings with troubled buyers of its flats. No date has yet been set for any trial. More than a dozen correspondences between Cheung Kong's lawyers and Mr Chan have so far centred on the technicality of defence claims. 'I have lost track of the number of documents exchanged so far,' says Mr Chan, taking out a bulky file of court documents from a shelf in his office. The lawsuit added to his heavy workload as a District Board member, delayed completion of his doctoral dissertation in public administration at Hong Kong University, and worried his wife. The worst, says the newly elected District Councillor, is that he could have gone broke without free legal advice from several fellow Democratic Party members who are lawyers. Cheung Kong has declined to comment on the proceedings. Mo is cautiously optimistic about future freedom of expression: 'Hong Kong is basically a free society, we are free to criticise Tung Chee-hwa or Zhu Rongji. One has a right to comment, others also have a right to sue. I think in a normal-functioning, developed society, libel suits should not happen easily.'