|Foreword by Benjamin Cheung the Director of Legal Aid|
Foreword by Benjamin Cheung the Director of Legal Aid
I am pleased to present this, my third Annual Report for the Legal Aid Department.
Many things happened during 2006 that had a direct bearing on the operations of the Department and the delivery of legal aid services in Hong Kong. I would like to highlight some of them here.
Direct Investigation by The Ombudsman on the Monitoring of Assigned-out Cases by the Department
On 19 January 2006, The Ombudsman published her Investigation Report having announced in April 2005 that her office would carry out a direct investigation on the administrative arrangements and mechanism relating to the monitoring of assigned-out cases by the Department. The Report did not reveal any major deficiencies in the Department's established system and procedures for monitoring assigned-out cases. Be that as it may, we will continue to improve the monitoring of assigned-out cases but at the same time endeavour to maintain a delicate balance between the need to monitor assigned-out cases and sanction under performance, and the need to entrust the assigned lawyers with the responsibility and latitude to conduct the cases according to their professional judgment, having regard to factors such as :
We are indebted to The Ombudsman for pointing out areas for improvement in the Report. In response, we conducted briefings for the staff on lessons learnt from the case studies undertaken by The Ombudsman during the investigation to ensure monitoring is carried out properly and for the right reasons, introduced trigger points so unsatisfactory performance by assigned lawyers will not go un-noticed and senior partners of solicitor firms will be alerted if an assigned solicitor repeatedly ignores our requests for progress reports.
Legislative Amendments for the Implementation of the Five-Yearly Review of the Criteria for Assessing the Financial Eligibility of Legal Aid Applicants
New regulations were introduced as a result of a comprehensive review by the Government of the criteria for assessing the financial eligibility of legal aid applicants.
The new regulations, namely the Legal Aid (Assessment of Resources and Contributions)(Amendment) Regulation 2005 came into effect on 20 February 2006 and allowed legal aid applicants to deduct maintenance payment or to claim care allowances for employing a carer to look after dependants unable to care for themselves while the applicants are at work when calculating their means.
The rate of contribution for a successful aided person under the Supplementary Legal Aid Scheme was reduced from 12% to 10% if damages are awarded after counsel is briefed to appear at the trial of the claim.
By virtue of the Legal Aid (Charge on Property) (Rate of Interest) Regulation which came into effect on 1 June 2006, the first charge interest rate would vary annually according to market movement and produce a rate which is lower than the commercial best lending rate instead of the fixed annual rate of 10%. The new formula therefore works in favour of persons who have recovered property with the assistance of legal aid as they will be charged an annual interest rate which will be lower than that charged by commercial banking institutions.
The Pilot Scheme on Legal Aid for Mediation in Matrimonial Cases
The 12-month Pilot Scheme on Legal Aid for Mediation of Legally Aided Matrimonial Cases (the Pilot Scheme) ended on 14 March 2006. Under the Pilot Scheme, legally aided persons in matrimonial cases willing to attempt mediation to resolve any issue in dispute with the other party were referred to the Mediation Co-ordinator's Office (MCO) of the Judiciary for assessment on whether the cases were suitable for mediation. The MCO assisted the parties concerned in cases found to be suitable for mediation to choose a mediator from a panel of accredited mediators. Participation in the Pilot Scheme was entirely voluntary and the Department paid for the mediators' fees for both the legally aided person and the other party.
A Steering Committee comprising representatives from the Administration Wing, the Legal Aid Department, the Judiciary and the Home Affairs Bureau has been established to oversee and evaluate the Pilot Scheme. The Department has been collecting data for evaluation. As it will take some time before all the cases under the Pilot Scheme are completed, the Steering Committee has decided that March 2007 would be the cut-off date for the collection of data with a view to completing the final evaluation by mid 2007.
Review of Criminal Legal Aid Fees System
In response to the two legal professional bodies' call for a change in the criminal legal aid fees system, the Department, working in conjunction with the Director of Administration, has since March 2006 engaged the Judiciary, the Bar Association, the Law Society and the Department of Justice in a comprehensive review of the criminal legal aid fees system.
Information Systems Strategy
The Department continued to exploit information technology for greater effectiveness and efficiency in the delivery of legal aid services. In late 2006, following a successful feasibility study carried out earlier, we embarked on the implementation of a Departmental E-portal known as "Legal Aid Electronic Services Portal (LAESP)" with target launch date in 2008. The LAESP will provide an e-option for applicants to submit information ahead of their applications for legal aid to facilitate the application process. It will allow practitioners to apply to join the legal aid panel by submitting their application electronically and for the panel lawyers to update their records kept in the panel. The LAESP will also enable panel lawyers to report progress of legal aid cases online, thereby enhancing communication between the panel lawyers and the Department for the benefit of the aided persons. During the year, we piloted a scheme on the use of electronic Document Management System for handling criminal legal aid cases with full implementation planned for 2007. The new system helps to save file document storage space, dispense with the need for assigned solicitors to return bundles to us once a case is concluded and provide ready access to bundles from desktop for our staff.
The Department continued to participate in various publicity and community programmes to promote public awareness and understanding of our services. Our staff gave talks to non-governmental organisations and other community groups. As in past years, we supported the "Law Week" held by the Law Society in November 2006.
Promotional videos with scripts of English, Putonghua and Cantonese have been uploaded onto the Department's website. The videos provide members of the public an additional way to learn of the services of the Department.
The Department has also stepped up publicity to educate applicants not to engage the services of recovery agents who are not regulated and to use legal aid to resolve their legal problems if they lack the means to pursue their claims. Specially designed posters were put up at conspicuous places in our offices for this purpose.
Strategic human resource development planning and implementation is central to achieving our goals. A broad range of training on various topics was organised in 2006 to address the training needs of staff with a view to enhancing their performance. Some major training activities held during the year included customer service training "If I were a Legal Aid Applicant", law seminars, job-related training on Means Testing, Judgment Summons and Prohibition Orders, Seaman's Claims, Use of First Charge Calculator and the Protocol in Receiving Mainland Officials. In addition, a wide variety of courses on general subjects such as management, communication, language, China studies and information technology were organised to meet the operational and developmental needs of individual officers. Since the setting up of the Learning Resource Centre in 2005, a full spectrum of resources have been acquired to facilitate self-learning by staff. This combined with the infrastructure built for e-learning, has been instrumental in promoting a continuous learning culture in the Department.
The Department will continue to strive to improve legal aid services in Hong Kong as set out in our Vision, Mission and Values statement. I am deeply indebted to the Legal Aid Services Council which has continued to give invaluable advice to the Department in providing quality legal aid services to the public. The change in membership of the Council in 2006 has not affected our harmonious working relationship. I would like to take this opportunity, on behalf of the staff of the Department, to express our sincere gratitude to the Chairman and members for their advice. I look forward to working closely with the Council in the years to come. My gratitude also goes to my staff for their dedication and enthusiasm in delivering quality legal aid services to the public, and to our assigned lawyers for their professionalism and significant contribution to the legal aid services in Hong Kong.
Benjamin Cheung King-man