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How free legal advice can help communities escape Hong Kong’s poverty trap

[Sponsored] Despite the government’s efforts to fight poverty, Hong Kong’s poverty rate remains high and social inequality is severe. The 2016 Hong Kong Poverty Situation report published by the government recently indicated that 1.35 million of the city’s 7.35 million residents live below the official poverty line. When your main daily concern is to get food on the table and to keep a roof over your head – does the law really matter to you? We at PILnet think it should.

Legal education program

Legal education programme at Convoy Life Investment Centre in Sham Shui Po. Photo: PILnet.

While Hong Kong has a robust system of free legal services, there are legal demands from disadvantaged communities that are not met by the services offered. Since 2013, PILnet has worked with many Hong Kong non-governmental organisations (NGOs) through workshops and a matchmaking platform that connects them with pro bono lawyers.

We have learned that our community faces a range of complex socio-economic problems, often with a legal element. Every day, individuals face situations with a legal dimension – whether it be the loss of a job because of gender discrimination, unlawful threats of eviction or a custody battle against an abusive spouse.

Any one of these problems could cascade into a whole host of social problems that could have been prevented with timely and early legal help. Legal problems like this can be likened to a common cold – you would want early medical treatment for a common cold to prevent it from turning into pneumonia. The same can be said about receiving early legal advice on a simple legal issue to prevent it from turning into a problem that touches on a whole host of other social issues.

Where to find legal help?

Let’s look at a situation where a pregnant woman, Ms. A, with an unemployed husband, is working as a restaurant dishwasher and is fired from her job because she can no longer carry heavy dishes. The moment she is fired, a sense of helplessness and despair rushes over her. In this case, certainly, the law would be able to help her. Her legal rights have been violated.

But where can she find help? One place she could turn is the Free Legal Advice Scheme. However, she will have to wait for up to eight weeks to get a 20 to 30-minute appointment with a lawyer, in a system that is not set up to provide any follow-up services. She can approach an NGO, but NGOs cannot provide legal help because regulations prevent them from doing so.

Teaching team for the legal education programme

Teaching team for the legal education programme at Convoy Life Investment Centre. Photo: PILnet.

In this situation, Ms. A could benefit greatly from some basic legal education: to understand her rights and receive some early legal advice on how to obtain redress. Most people in the disadvantaged community are unaware of their legal rights and as a result they often feel disempowered in situations that arise from economic disparity or gender inequality.

If these individuals were educated on their legal rights, and had an understanding of how the law protects them in circumstances of unfairness and discrimination, they could rise above adversity and search for the justice that they so rightly deserve.

In just societies, law works for all

PILnet recently ran a legal education programme at the Convoy Life Investment Centre in Sham Shui Po, in partnership with Lindsay Ernst, lecturer at University of Hong Kong (HKU), the law firm Clyde & Co and Social Ventures Hong Kong. PILnet oversaw HKU law students who worked with Clyde & Co lawyers to teach basic employment legal concepts to a group of low-income mothers who have been in – or will go into – the workforce.

The concepts taught included discrimination, employer liability and employment benefits. The mothers were thoroughly engaged, eager to learn and many of them shared personal stories about employment incidents they had encountered which were directly relevant to the material being taught.

In all those instances, it would have been helpful for them to have a basic knowledge of their legal rights so they could recognise that they had been wronged, and that they have every right to seek assistance and obtain redress. Such knowledge is empowering and allows them to see that there is a way to obtain what is legally due to them in society.

PILnet believes that law should not only work for the rich because in just societies, the law works for all. Ms. A needs early legal assistance to obtain redress. It may be as simple as a lawyer or a law student supervised by a lawyer helping her write a letter about her situation to her former employer explaining that what was done was potentially discriminatory and possibly against the law. Or perhaps assistance in helping her file a complaint with the Equal Opportunities Commission.

Either of these actions would not only potentially provide Ms. A with the redress she is seeking, but would also give her a sense of hope that there is justice in our society and even a way to break out of the cycle of poverty if she is able to assert her rights. But currently, there is nothing in Hong Kong’s myriad of available free legal services that could provide such specific assistance in a timely manner.

PILnet and DLA Piper’s 2017 report

PILnet and DLA Piper’s 2017 report THIS WAY: Finding Community Legal Assistance in Hong Kong. Photo: PILnet.

So yes, the law matters for the disadvantaged. In Ms. A’s situation, early legal assistance would at the very least make her feel that there is a chance to change her circumstances.  When the disadvantaged are educated and begin to comprehend the weight of their rights, they understand that change is possible and that there is hope for overcoming the cycle of poverty, where they once found themselves helplessly trapped.

PILnet believes that it is high time for members of the community, including the Law Society, the Bar Association and the Hong Kong Government, to work together, and evaluate and assess how a more effective system of early legal intervention can be introduced. PILnet has organised a task force that will look at ways to improve the legal assistance system for the disadvantaged community. Should you wish to join us, please contact us at [email protected].

If you would like more information on this issue, please read PILnet and DLA Piper’s 2017 report THIS WAY: Finding Community Legal Assistance in Hong Kong.

How free legal advice can help communities escape Hong Kong's poverty trap