Fees can be less than hourly rate of pay in McDonald's A government proposal to inject HK$30 million more a year into the criminal legal aid fees system has been criticised by a Law Society representative as highly inadequate. In a Legislative Council paper released yesterday, the government proposes paying criminal solicitors an hourly 'reading fee' for reading documents to prepare a trial. A 'preparation fee' would be granted for hours spent on other pre-trial work. Solicitors would also be paid for attending conferences with barristers and legal aid clients, but the fee levels have not yet been set. The proposal will allow lawyers to seek a redetermination of fees by the Legal Aid Department both during and after the trial. At present, they can only do so after the proceedings. The government estimates the proposed changes, to be discussed at the Legislative Council on Monday, would result in an increase in criminal legal aid expenditures of about 30 per cent, or HK$30 million a year. HK$101.6 million was spent on the scheme last year. The fees system, introduced in the 1970s, does not pay lawyers for any pre-trial work. This prompted a long-fought battle between the government and the legal profession, and caused an increasing number of veteran lawyers to shun legal aid cases, leaving litigants in the hands of inexperienced lawyers. However, Michael Vidler, a member of the Law Society's criminal law and procedure committee, said a 30 per cent increase in expenditure was far from a proper, long-lasting legal aid reform. 'Lawyers are effectively getting sometimes 50 HK cents an hour, sometimes HK$5 an hour, and sometimes HK$50 an hour,' he said. 'Thirty per cent on top of that does not amount to much. We are looking for a commitment for a properly funded modern legal aid system. 'If they are agreeing to pay five dollars an hour, less than some 17-year-olds working in McDonald's, I am afraid to say they are not going to get many criminal solicitors agreeing to stay in the system.' He said Britain had a similar problem, with private lawyers flooding out of the scheme. The society had submitted examples to officials showing cases where legal aid litigants decided on the eve of the trial to plead guilty after their lawyers spent weeks preparing for the trial. The lawyers ended up being paid as little as HK$50 an hour or less. The rates are a far cry from the hourly market fee of HK$4,000 for veteran solicitors. A society letter sent to the Government Secretariat last week called for an 'express undertaking' to revise the fees. But Mr Vidler said the government had so far focused on reforming the fee structure and was reluctant to address rates. A solicitor taking a legal aid case in the Court of First Instance is paid HK$6,790 on the first day, and between HK$830 and HK$4,420 for each subsequent day.