More clarity for legal help urged

Local | Carain Yeung 31 May 2017

Early legal advice and help for vulnerable groups is inadequate despite free and subsidized services, say experts and non-government organizations.

They called for the government to establish community-based legal centers and have closer cooperation with the non-government bodies.

"To the community, the legal system really appears like a maze," said Ng Tze- wei, deputy director for Asia of PILnet: The Global Network for Public Interest Law. "There is really no clear entry point. There are quite a lot of services available but you really don't know who you can go to."

Ng's group and international law firm DLA Piper conducted a 15-month study to look into the unmet legal needs and service gaps, reaching out to 15 NGOs to gauge the situation.

A single mother said she caught herself in legal issues applying for Comprehensive Social Security Assistance. The part-time worker told the government she was not working as it was the Christmas break and she was taking care of her ill son.

She later found out she had to report her earnings and voluntarily did so. But she was warned that she could be sued for lying about her income and she signed a document agreeing to pay HK$500 a month for the next two years.

Just when she thought it was over, she was asked to give a statement to police and was told she could be prosecuted for fraud.

There are about a dozen free or subsidized legal services available.

Government legal aid focuses on representation but assistance for an individual to obtain early legal advice is limited.

The Duty Lawyer Service, funded by the government and managed by the Law Society of Hong Kong and Hong Kong Bar Association, provides legal advice and representation.

But the free legal advice is a 30-minute session with an average eight-week wait and defendants often have just about 15 minutes to talk to the lawyer.

"The concept locally is that it's only the defendant who needs a lawyer and the victim, as a witness, does not need it," said Linda Wong Sau-yung, executive director of RainLily. "But we see that it is not the case."

A rape victim whom Wong helped a few years ago brought a blade to court and planned to harm herself.

The distressed victim was worried that she would be asked about her sexual history in court as she gave the information to the polic e in her statement.

Wong's organization runs a legal service clinic, which received 59 cases between October 2015 and last September.

Leontine Chuang, PILnet's director for Hong Kong, said: "People should have early legal advice so they know what their options are so they can avoid going to court, because when you are at the court stage, you are already using up resources that you might not need to be using."

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