Pro bono legal help levels playing field for Hong Kong NGOs

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 May, 2014, 5:31am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 May, 2014, 5:31am

A decade of advocating for women's rights has taught Linda To Kit-lai that rhetorical appeals to bureaucratic policymakers go only so far.

To really make an impact you need a good lawyer. The problem is, they do not come cheap, or at least not until recently.

To founded the HER fund, a charity for women's projects, a decade ago, but it was only in the past few months that her group became one of the first to benefit from a new scheme connecting NGOs with lawyers willing to provide their services for free, or pro bono.

The scheme, set up by the non-profit group PILnet - the Global Network for Public Interest Law - has meant the end of a long headache for To, whose work often involves challenging government policies.

"When you look at [government] policies, they are made up of thick chapters and a long list of tables," said To. "NGOs are rather a lame duck without the necessary legal background."

Pro bono arrangements are common in the US but only starting to develop in Hong Kong.

But Edwin Rekosh, president of PILnet, said local lawyers were willing to offer their services.

"The participation base is actually very high given the level of development of pro bono."

One hurdle for local lawyers is a restriction that allows only firms to take out indemnity insurance. Lawyers must seek their firm's approval before offering free services to a good cause - or be unprotected in the event a client seeks compensation for poor legal advice.

"This problem needs to be promptly curbed," said Eric Cheung Tat-ming, a law lecturer at the University of Hong Kong.

He called on the Law Society to set up independent insurance schemes for pro bono work.

To's next project is to challenge the rule that gives foreign domestic helpers leaving their employer just two weeks to find another job. She is already seeking more pro bono advice.