Fill the gaps in our legal aid system
The city’s legal aid system provides a valuable service, but as a recent study points out, it needs to move with the times and not just focus on representation in court
Hong Kong rightly takes pride in its legal system. With an independent judiciary and strong common law tradition, we can have confidence that justice is being done. But there is little point in having a sound legal system if it is beyond the financial reach of people who need it. Lawyers are expensive. This is why legal aid is so important in providing access to justice. A recent study by global advocacy group PILnet and multinational law firm DLA Piper highlights significant gaps in the provision of legal aid in Hong Kong, especially for the poorest and most vulnerable. It also calls for a review of regulatory hurdles which make it difficult for NGOs, law schools and other institutions to offer free legal services. The report is comprehensive and thought-provoking. It examines the legal aid environment in Hong Kong and considers developments overseas. The questions raised in the study are worthy of attention.
Hong Kong’s legal aid system has served the city well for more than 50 years. It provides legal representation in civil and criminal cases for many people who cannot afford to pay for a lawyer of their own and is not restricted to Hong Kong residents. In 2015, more than 9,500 legal aid certificates were granted. A strict means test makes only those with financial assets below a certain level eligible. And a merits test aims to ensure the service is not abused. A supplementary scheme is available for the so-called sandwich class. These schemes are not free, requiring contributions from most litigants. They are also not perfect. Over the years there have been questions about the quality of the services provided, whether the fees paid to lawyers are sufficient and whether the schemes exclude too many people. But they have provided much-needed access to justice and, thankfully, Hong Kong has not seen drastic cuts in legal aid of the kind introduced in the UK.
However, as the study points out, the legal aid system focuses on representation in court. Many people need legal advice much earlier than that and they often don’t know where to get it. Many require help navigating the system. Even filling in forms to apply for legal aid is a complex business. The various advice schemes on offer are limited in scope, lack cohesion, and are often unable to provide urgent advice. The report’s proposal that a community advice centre should be established as an entry point for those needing help makes sense. Meanwhile, NGOs and others wishing to fill gaps in legal services are hamstrung by restrictive regulations. This is an area the government and the legal profession should look at. There is a need for a clear and coordinated approach. The legal aid system provides a valuable service. But it needs to move with the times and ensure gaps are filled.