The Hong Kong government has begun its review of the legal aid mechanism after pro-establishment lawmakers questioned whether some lawyers had disproportionately profited from it.

The review would be completed in three to four months’ time, with the government looking into further restricting the number of legal aid cases a lawyer can accept each year, according to Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung during a Legislative Council meeting on Wednesday.

Matthew Cheung
Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung in a Legislative Council meeting on June 16, 2021. Photo: RTHK, via video screenshot.

Pro-establishment lawmakers raised concerns over whether the mechanism was being abused, or was benefitting some lawyers disproportionately.

The question was first raised by legislator Elizabeth Quat, who asked whether the government would consider disclosing the reasons behind approving or rejecting legal aid applications in order to increase the mechanism’s transparency.

Cheung said that – unlike court judgements – the government’s Legal Aid Department has to comply with the Personal Data Ordinance and could not disclose the personal information of applicants without prior consent. He added that disclosing the judgements could also affect ongoing legal proceedings.

“However, we understand the society’s concern over certain legal aid cases related to Judicial Reviews,” said Cheung. “We will seriously consider the feasibility of increasing transparency suitably when conducting the review [of the legal aid system] to enhance public understanding of the legal aid work, and to avoid causing misunderstandings.”

Legal Aid Department
Legal Aid Department’s branch in Kowloon. Photo: Chong Fat, via Wikimedia Commons.

The city’s legal department provides assistance for civil and criminal proceedings in the District Court and above to those who are unable to afford legal representation.

Legislative Councillor Priscilla Leung suggested that legal aid applicants should not be able to choose their legal representatives should their application be approved. She said that the legal sector has been complaining that the cases were concentrated in certain law firms.

In response, Cheung said that the government would review whether the appointment of certain lawyers to legal aid cases was overly concentrated.

Under current legal aid restrictions, solicitors can take on 35 civil cases and 25 criminal cases each year, while barristers can take 20 civil cases and 25 criminal cases.

‘Champerty in yellow legal circle’

Pro-Beijing legislator Michael Luk asked whether the government would look into the legal aid system to prevent the pro-democracy “yellow legal circle” from engaging in acts of champerty, and cited the case of a woman who sustained an injury in her right eye during the anti-extradition bill protests in 2019.

shot in eye protest airport
File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

The woman filed a legal challenge with legal aid against the police’s refusal to provide a copy of the warrant used to access her medical records. The High Court later ruled in December that year that police were not obligated to show the warrant in question.

The woman, whose identity remained anonymous during the court cases and was only known as “K,” was often depicted as a victim of police brutality and became a protest symbol.

Luk claimed that K “had an extremely improper motive” to hide the truth and obstruct the investigation, and asked Cheung whether the government would consider listing the public interest as one of the criteria for approving legal aid.

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Candice is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously worked as a researcher at a local think tank. She has a BSocSc in Politics and International Relations from the University of Manchester and a MSc in International Political Economy from London School of Economics.