IT is the stuff dramas are made of. After a hearing that lasted more than two years, a jury consisting of a postal worker, a bank teller, a welder, a telephone technician, an assistant principal and another school employee ruled that the tobacco industry was guilty of manufacturing a deadly product but claiming it to be non-lethal. The penalty: an astronomical US$145 billion (HK$1,130 billion) in punitive damages to about 500,000 sick smokers in Florida. The stars in the case are a husband-and-wife legal team who made a cogent case against the tobacco companies out of the plight of several victims of nicotine. For their legal ingenuity, they will be paid a handsome sum from the award. For Hong Kong smokers, the ruling has no practical significance, even though some of the tobacco companies involved also operate here. As Hong Kong does not have American-style class action laws or a contingency fee arrangement where lawyers are paid only if they win, there is no way that local smokers can mount the same kind of David versus Goliath battles as their Floridian counterparts. But that is precisely the issue about which all who care about the accessibility of our legal system should think. Although Hong Kong courts treat people of different means equally, the high costs of litigation often deter those with average means from launching a civil suit. These days, because of the recession and a surge in the supply of lawyers, many solicitors and barristers are said to be charging only minimal fees. Even so, the prospect of having to pay the winning side's legal costs should one's suit fail is sufficient to discourage all except those with deep pockets from seeking redress through the courts. In 1995, a consultation paper on legal services mooted the possibility of introducing a contingency fee arrangement in Hong Kong. It received a mixed reaction and was then shelved. In redressing a power imbalance between the little people and the powerful, the American system may have gone overboard. But Hong Kong's system is definitely in need of reform to make it more accessible. With lawyers crying out for more work, the time may have come to dust off the 1995 proposals. Justice contingent on means is justice denied.