Explaining the state of legal aid in HK and why everyone deserves equal access to justice

By Henry Lui, University College London

Taking or being subjected to legal action can be messy and expensive so there should be more legal aid provisions in Hong Kong

By Henry Lui, University College London |

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Legal aid provisions are inadequate in Hong Kong.

Legal television dramas are a staple in the entertainment industry. Shows, from the overtly-sensationalised Legal Mavericks to the more true-to-life The Good Wife, have been reeling in viewers since their debuts with their glossy portrayals of the legal profession.

The reality of law, however, is far removed from the glitz and glam seen on the small screen.

The needy in Hong Kong are, far from getting an Atticus-Finch-saves-the-day sort of ending, often bogged down and disheartened by the foreign and inaccessible nature of the legal process. The troubled state of legal aid provisions certainly does not help. 

According to a report by major law firm DLA Piper, the average defendant had just 15 minutes with their duty lawyer before the start of a court hearing. Others who had yet to appear in court had to put up with an average waiting time of eight weeks before they could receive a 30-minute free advice slot with their lawyer. The report was even more damning about the application for legal aid itself, saying it was not intelligible to the average person – people seemed to need legal aid to get legal aid.

According to a report by the charity Law for Life, working class people are more likely to face legal action, which means a lack of adequate support makes an already unequal situation far worse than it should be. 

Those who are not being sued or threatened with prosecution are, unsurprisingly, not doing that much better either.

Of the 1,064 legal aid applications submitted for judicial review proceedings in 2017, just 29 were approved by the Legal Aid Department. This issue is important because a judicial review is the sole tool available to the masses to scrutinise government decisions, and is often the last line of defence for asylum seekers looking to appeal against deportation orders.

While the individuals involved are in a seemingly better position – given that they are the ones initiating legal action – access to judicial review proceedings is the only way for your common lay person to fight back when they are being wronged by civil service busybodies. 

While the lofty phrase the “rule of law” is often misused by officials on both sides of the political spectrum as a vague but powerful term to justify their position, the rule of law is genuinely harmed when people are not able to get the support they need.

The rule of law can only be protected if people are actually able to access independent court proceedings, and if the discretion of the executive branch is subject to stringent limits.

Neither of these things will happen if the poor don’t have the expertise, time, or support to get a lawyer. Instead, the rich will get the “Rolls-Royce version” (as the DLA Piper report put it) of legal services, enabling them to effectively fight against hostile legal action and government regulations which harm their interests, while the poor will have to take whatever is coming to them. 

Complex social issues aren’t often easily solved, but they certainly are in this case. “More” is the answer. More legal aid, more lawyers, and more time can really help people get the outcome they deserve.

Although no minister wants to be the fool giving money to potential litigants who will often be facing the government in court, it is necessary for them to do so if they wish to continue using the “rule of law” as a selling point for Hong Kong, a “global financial hub”.

Not all lawyers can be Atticus, but having a lawyer – any lawyer – can really save your day.

Edited by Ginny Wong