A landmark judicial review of domestic helpers' entitlement to the right of abode in Hong Kong began yesterday with arguments centred on the definition of 'ordinarily resident' in a case closely watched by the public with the community still locked in a tense debate. Lawyers for Evangeline Banao Vallejos, a Filipino who has lived in Hong Kong for 25 years, argued in the Court of First Instance that an Immigration Ordinance provision that foreign domestic helpers cannot be treated as 'ordinarily resident' - a requirement for permanent residency - is unconstitutional as it adds an extra hurdle to the requirements under the Basic Law. But lawyers for the government argued that the Basic Law, when properly construed, denies certain groups of people the right to live in Hong Kong as 'ordinary residents' or at least it authorises the legislature to define the circumstances in which a particular group would be excluded. During the hearing, the government also said it reserved the right to argue in the Court of Final Appeal that the court should seek an interpretation of the Basic Law from Beijing in the case. The courtroom was packed with more than 70 reporters and members of the public, while about 80 people viewed proceedings live on television outside court and the helpers' supporters and opponents paraded their views. In what she called the 'lead case' of a number of cases, Gladys Li SC, for the applicant, cited the judicial precedent that an Indian cook was given permanent residency in Hong Kong, and asked why foreign domestic helpers, who did much the same work, were treated differently. 'What's so extraordinary about being a domestic helper?' Li asked, saying the helpers were on 24-hour call to cook in domestic premises. 'The nature of the work is the same, although the environment of the work may be different.' Li said it was a fundamental right that people should be protected against discriminatory provisions. The court heard that Vallejos, who had worked in Hong Kong as a domestic helper since 1986, applied to the Immigration Department for permanent residency in April 2008. But her application was rejected on the ground that she did not satisfy the requirements set out under Article 24 of the Basic Law and section 2(4) of the Immigration Ordinance. Article 24 of the Basic Law states: 'Persons not of Chinese nationality who have entered Hong Kong with valid travel documents, have ordinarily resided in Hong Kong for a continuous period of not less than seven years and have taken Hong Kong as their place of permanent residence before or after the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.' Section 2(4) of the Immigration Ordinance says that a person shall not be treated as ordinarily resident in Hong Kong while employed as a domestic helper who is from outside Hong Kong. Vallejos appealed to the Registration of Persons Tribunal, which found that she had satisfied the seven-year requirement but failed on the ground that she was not an 'ordinary resident'. Li said while there was no exclusion in the Basic Law 'why on earth should one add in an exclusion for one to satisfy the requirement as an ordinary resident?' She said this created the scene that 'the maid is bigger than the mistress', which she said was absurd. But David Pannick QC, for the government, argued that the legislative intent of denying domestic helpers the status of 'ordinary residents' was relevant and should be taken into consideration. He set out seven points explaining why the residency of helpers had been 'out of the ordinary' since they arrived. They included that, under their employment contracts, domestic helpers were obliged to live with a specific employer, were not allowed to maintain their own households, could not bring in spouses or children on completion of the contract, and were required to go back to their homeland to maintain links with their place of origin. Pannick said there were also restrictions on changing of employers when a maid ended a contract prematurely. '[The contractual restrictions] are deliberately designed to foster and maintain the links between the foreign domestic helper and the place of origin,' Pannick said. 'Your residence in Hong Kong is far from normal [but in fact is] quite extraordinary.' Li said it could not be held that if her client won the case, there would be a 'sudden and overnight flood of permanent residents' into Hong Kong, as the government had said. Mr Justice Johnson Lam Man-hon said he was only concerned with the law and his decision would not be affected by social and political concerns. Five Filipinos are fighting in the High Court for the right of abode. The plaintiffs in three judicial reviews want the court to declare the rule denying helpers residency contravenes the Basic Law. About 290,000 helpers work in the city - 146,000 of them from Indonesia and 139,000 from the Philippines. The case continues today.