“I found out I needed to visit many different departments, and I also had to pay court fees, so I didn’t even dare to eat. Every night I was so hungry I could not sleep.
Working on a construction site in Hong Kong, “Mr. J” slipped off a building. The fall left him disabled, and before long, facing a myriad of legal issues. The eviction notice came first. He needed time, money, and advice to stave off homelessness, none of which was readily available. Ultimately, Mr. J kept his home but fell further down the security ladder, pushing him into a more marginal existence than before the accident.
Prompted by the needs of those like Mr. J, PILnet and DLA Piper examined the status of access to justice in Hong Kong in a new report, THIS WAY – Finding Community Legal Assistance in Hong Kong. The report considers the legal needs of low income and vulnerable communities in Hong Kong, the free legal services that are available, and the gaps that exist in between. The report suggests that early legal assistance is the key to access to justice in Hong Kong.
Key findings include:
- The current system of community legal services in Hong Kong is ill-equipped to handle urgent cases, provide continuity in legal support, or offer specialist legal advice most relevant to community needs.
- The poorest members of the community often have numerous problems which compound each other, e.g., unemployment can lead to debt, homelessness can lead to conflict with the law. Immigration status and domestic violence are other examples of situations which generate complex and multi-layered legal issues.
- There is no visible entry point to free legal advice and services in Hong Kong, and navigating this maze can be tough for people of limited means or education.
- There are regulatory barriers to NGOs employing lawyers, and certain categories of lawyers, such as retired lawyers, law professors, general counsel, providing pro bono assistance.
- There are excellent examples of community legal programs in other common law jurisdictions which could be adapted in Hong Kong.
The report made 24 recommendations for improving access to justice in Hong Kong, including:
- The establishment of community-based legal centres that can provide legal services from initial advice through to referral and representation;
- That a comprehensive assessment of unmet legal needs in Hong Kong, with a focus on the poor and vulnerable groups should be conducted;
- That professional bodies review policies and rules to better enable lawyers to do community legal work, to engage in full-time public interest work for NGOs, and to facilitate the establishment of not-for-profit law firms; and
- That current service providers should undertake a strategic review of their legal assistance services and their effectiveness.
This report also makes suggestions on the specific changes needed in order to have a more enabling environment for lawyers to provide pro bono services, for NGOs to hire staff lawyers, and for non-for-profit law firms to be established.
On May 23, 2017, PILnet and DLA Piper hosted a launch event for the Report at DLA Piper’s Hong Kong office. Lead authors of the Report, Jennifer Yi Man Cheung and Tze-wei Ng, gave a brief presentation of the findings, followed by a panel discussion.
Panelists included Annette Bain, DLA Piper’s Pro Bono Counsel for Asia; Linda Wong, Executive Director of RainLily, Hong Kong’s first one-stop crisis center for female victims of sexual violence; Richard Tsoi, a Community Organizer at Society for Community Organization (SoCO); and Lindsay Ernst, Lecturer at Faculty of Law, The University of Hong Kong. The four-person panel discussion centered on real world, front-line experiences, and the gaps and priorities for community-level change.
PILnet and DLA extend their deepest gratitude to all who have contributed their time and invaluable insights to THIS WAY, and hope that the report will prove essential in efforts to foster pro bono and community legal service work.