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Hong Kong Legal Community Rallies With Pro Bono During COVID

(A community legal talk about tenancy rights organized by Pro Bono HK, featuring lawyers from DLA Piper. Photo: Pro Bono HK Facebook)

The Hong Kong legal community has stepped up its pro bono services at a time when the city has been thrown into an unprecedented period of turmoil.

For Hong Kong’s most impoverished and marginalized communities, access to justice has become even more restricted as disruptions caused by political unrest and COVID-19 ravaged the city one wave after another.

Over the past 12 months, global firms such as Mayer Brown and DLA Piper, local firms and barristers have sought to provide much-needed pro bono legal assistance to legal aid applicants, foreign domestic workers and non-profit organizations struggling with governance issues.

“As lawyers, we have a role to play to ensure that the marginalized or vulnerable and the NGOs representing them and advancing other causes, who cannot afford a lawyer, can obtain access to legal assistance—in particular where government-funded legal aid is not available,” said Menachem Hasofer, a Hong Kong partner at Mayer Brown who chairs the firm's Asia pro bono practice.

Access to justice has long been a problem in Hong Kong. The cost of legal counsel is so expensive that veteran lawyer Gordon Oldham described the city’s legal system as an old Rolls-Royce—“expensive, slow and in desperate need of an overhaul.”

Oldham’s firm, Oldham, Li & Nie, recently conducted a global survey of litigation processes in 54 jurisdictions and found Hong Kong ranked among the top 10% of the most expensive jurisdictions for litigation in the world. The city also has one of the worst inequality rates among developed economies, with one in five people living below the poverty line.

Hong Kong’s government-funded legal aid system is significantly underfunded. In 2020, there were close to 15,000 applications for legal aid, which has a means test, according to government statistics. Around half of these were rejected. During the pandemic, family, divorce and custody issues have increased, according to Annie Tang, communications and community engagement director of Pro Bono HK, a local non-profit.

Launched in 2017, Pro Bono HK aims to fill the gap of legal needs for people who do not qualify for government legal aid but are also unable to afford the services of a law firm. So far, the organization has helped about 200 poor and disadvantaged members of the public by holding community legal clinics in poor districts such as Sham Shui Po, which has large numbers of new immigrants, elderly and ethnic minorities.

Tang said for these clinics, the organization mainly draws from volunteer law firm associates and trainees, although barristers can also volunteer.

“We’ve actually found a lot of interest from the legal community in general as well as law students. They’re all very keen to help the disadvantaged community,” Tang said.

In February, Oldham Li family law partner Yvonne Kong participated in an online community legal clinic organized by Pro Bono HK. Last year, DLA Piper lawyers helped at a community legal talk about tenancy rights; the global firm also seconded associate Aaron Chan with Pro Bono HK for six months to assist with community legal clinics.

In addition to solicitors, the Hong Kong Bar Association has also recently lent its support for the organization’s work. In February, the barristers association granted an exemption under the Bar Code to permit barristers to advise Pro Bono HK’s clients directly, without the need for instruction from a solicitor.

The move has led to more barristers indicating interest in volunteering, said Tang. It also helps free up the organization’s capacity, as solicitors no longer have to be present with the barristers when offering legal advice. Pro Bono HK, like other non-profit organizations, has found it difficult to operate during the pandemic.

One of Pro Bono HK’s aims is to provide legal assistance as quickly as possible to those who need it. In its latest report on Hong Kong, released in 2017, pro bono clearinghouse PILnet identified early legal assistance as the key gap to access to justice in Hong Kong. The government’s legal aid scheme only provides for legal representation, covering the legal proceedings stage and not any earlier stages. Meanwhile, there is a wait of up to eight weeks for a meeting with a lawyer under the government’s “early” free legal advice scheme, with no follow-up service or subsequent representation.

“These are critical matters in these people’s lives ... For example, if it’s a domestic violence issue, they want to sort that out as soon as possible rather than wait two or three months,” said Tang.

The importance of timely legal assistance is most stark in the case of foreign domestic workers, who only have two weeks to find a new job in the city or be deported under Hong Kong’s immigration laws. The rule deters helpers from leaving their employers even if they are abusive, according to local helpers’ rights groups.

Mostly made up of women from Indonesia and the Philippines who work as domestic helpers and live with their employers, Hong Kong’s 400,000-strong foreign domestic worker community suers from lax worker protection laws—a problem that has been exacerbated during the pandemic as employers have fired helpers without compensation or restricted their movements due to fear of contracting the virus.

DLA Piper has helped local charity Justice Without Borders on matters related to domestic workers, including preparing posters to inform foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong about their rights. Meanwhile, charities and other civil society groups themselves are in need of legal assistance during the pandemic. Mayer Brown’s Hasofer said there has been increased pro bono interest in corporate governance-related matters, such as NGOs’ incorporation structures and obtaining tax exemption status.

Most NGOs in Hong Kong are incorporated as “company limited by guarantee” and are governed by the city’s Companies Ordinance. As such, Hasofer said, NGOs face similar challenges to those faced by the firm’s normal fee-paying clients.

In April of last year, Mayer Brown partnered with PILnet and the Hong Kong Council of Social Services to educate more than 180 civil society groups and individuals on corporate governance issues through a webinar, answering questions such as how to hold an annual general meeting in light of gathering restrictions, and the rules surrounding the quorum required for holding an annual general meeting. The webinar was followed by a virtual clinic, where Mayer Brown lawyers provided 30 minutes of pro bono legal information to each participating NGO.

In September, the firm held a virtual “NGO Marketplace” event where different NGOs were invited to present their legal needs to the firm's lawyers interested in pro bono work. Participating NGOs included local groups working on environmental issues, migrant workers and refugees.

Moving forward, Pro Bono HK’s Tang wants to see more lawyers in Hong Kong permitted to volunteer at her organization’s legal clinics, especially from the in-house community. Current indemnity insurance rules restrict the ability of in-house counsel to engage in pro bono work directly. The organization is raising funds to pay for indemnity insurance themselves, estimated to cost more than HK$200,000 (US$26,000) annually.

“This would not only increase our capacity to provide more legal clinic services, but also increase the number of clinics around Hong Kong so that we can help even more individuals gain legal assistance,” Tang said.

Written by Vincent Chow

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