Hong Kong courts

Serial Hong Kong litigant who failed to declare new bank account and HK$60,000 in cash challenges decision to revoke legal aid

  • Kwok Cheuk-kin is known as the ‘king of judicial reviews’ and wants to support to back his challenge against city’s small-house policy
  • Judge questions claim that Kwok was ignorant of process, as former civil servant launches bid to reverse decision
PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 October, 2018, 5:42pm
UPDATED : Monday, 29 October, 2018, 10:41pm

A former Hong Kong civil servant given legal aid to launch a judicial review challenging the city’s controversial small-house policy argued in court on Monday that officials erred in revoking his financial assistance.

High Court heard Kwok Cheuk-kin, widely known as the “king of judicial reviews” for challenging the government, lost his financial support in August after the Legal Aid Department discovered he failed to declare a new bank account, and HK$60,000 in cash he kept at his Cheung Chau residence.

The revocation led to Kwok applying for a separate judicial review earlier this month, when the High Court Registrar dismissed his appeal against the decision by the department’s director.

Hectar Pun Hei SC, who took on Kwok’s latest case pro bono with two junior counsels, argued during an expedited hearing on Monday that the registrar made an error in finding his client had wilfully failed to disclose his financial resources.

But Paul Lam Ting-kwok SC, representing the director, slammed the present review as an attempt by Kwok “to have the third bite of the cherry”, given the registrar had considered the application afresh and concluded Kwok did not fully disclose his assets as required.

Mr Justice Thomas Au Hing-cheung will hand down his decision on Tuesday.

If Kwok is successful, his legal aid application will be sent back to the registrar for reconsideration.

But should he fail, Kwok said he will face the government and Heung Yee Kuk, the powerful rural body that represents New Territories villages, by himself when the eight-day judicial review hearing on small-house policy begins on December 3.

“Small house [policy] is very important, it affects everyone in Hong Kong,” Kwok told reporters outside court.

Government must stand up against the Heung Yee Kuk for the public good

Enacted in 1972 as a temporary housing measure, the policy allows male, adult indigenous villagers the right to build a three-storey house within a recognised New Territories village, or on agricultural land.

The government has long recognised the need for a review of the policy, which has faced criticism for being prone to abuse, and unfair in a city with dwindling land supply.

Kwok applied for the judicial review in 2015, after 11 indigenous villagers were jailed for up to three years for a scam in which they sold their land rights under the small-house policy for profit.

He was represented by Martin Lee Chu-ming SC, also on pro bono, while the government is represented by Anthony Chan. Heung Yee Kuk is represented by David Pannick QC and Jin Pao SC.

Pun argued that the judicial review on small-house policy was a case of public interest in which his client did not derive any personal gain, so there was no reason for him to wilfully ignore requirements.

“He did not wilfully fail to disclose any material fact,” Pun said. “He was just ignorant. He repeated that 15 times in my chambers.”

Let Hong Kong’s courts decide on the small-house policy

But Au observed that Kwok, being an experienced legal aid applicant, should be “inherently less likely to misunderstand requirements”. The judge also pointed out that Kwok had not been able to give credible or consistent explanations for the money found in his home.

The court heard Kwok initially said the money came from odd jobs such as washing dishes, and collecting cardboard, but later said it came from horse betting.

Lam revealed that Kwok had applied for legal aid on 61 occasions, of which 18 were successful.

He also pointed out that Kwok’s Bank of China account was a very active one, with more than 10 transactions exceeding HK$10,000 each following the initial deposit of about HK$45,500.

“My learned friend needs to show the decision was so unreasonable that no reasonable tribunal of fact could have decided the matter the same way as the registrar,” Lam said. “Unless the applicant can provide new grounds, this application must be dismissed.”