By Simon Henderson
Government budgets are about priorities. To spend here means not spending there. But Hong Kong is no ordinary place.
With fiscal reserves of over HK$1 trillion, Hong Kong has an enviable position internationally. Media reports indicate that the budget surplus could now be as high as HK$160 billion for 2017-18. That is an incredible sum that any financial secretary would be proud of, granting a unique opportunity to use it to benefit Hong Kong.
In the 2018-19 Budget Consultation papers, the financial secretary puts forward a new fiscal philosophy for Hong Kong, one which puts the reserves to use by making “timely investments as preventative measures” and is focused on “fiscal policy for economic and social development”.
So, how should fiscal surpluses be used to benefit the community?
Perhaps one of the greatest challenges is that of an ever ageing population.
With 16% of people in Hong Kong now 65 or older, there is a unique set of policy problems which must be faced sooner or later. One vital issue for the community at large is that of elder abuse.
Elder abuse takes many different forms, including physical, psychological and financial. The Social Welfare Department acknowledges these issues, publishing data and providing public education. However, there still remains an important gap when it comes to providing legal services to empower the elderly to access and enforce their legal rights.
NGOs in Hong Kong, such as Justice Centre Hong Kong, could be key to ensuring access to justice through free legal assistance. However, due to existing regulatory barriers NGOs and other non-profit making organisation cannot provide direct legal representation.
Hong Kong’s ageing population will lead to increasing demand for legal services, such as debt management, unfair contracts, wills and housing matters. While there is useful information or services through District Elderly Community Centres, Neighbourhood Elderly Centres or projects such as Senior Community Legal Information Centre, they do not constitute legal advice.
One way this services gap could be tackled in the Budget 2018-19 is through the development of not-for-profit legal structures such as government funded Community Legal Centres (CLCs), either as a holistic legal needs CLC or as smaller, specialised centres focusing on specific issues, such as those facing the elderly.
Centres such as this would provide free, early and accessible legal advice without generating profits. They would take action to solve legal problems quickly and efficiently, before they become complex and harder to solve. This could include writing a simple letter or making a phone call on the person’s behalf.
Beyond the importance of providing valuable access to justice to a disadvantaged sector of Hong Kong society, such as the elderly, CLCs make sound financial sense. For example, an Australian economic cost benefit analysis found that per dollar spent there is a return to society 18 times that cost.
Such centres would help uphold the rule of law, one of Hong Kong’s core values according to the Chief Executive. The rule of law requires access to competent and independent legal advice for all, especially for the most vulnerable, such as the elderly.
The proposal of not-for-profit legal structures for Hong Kong is not new. Many have recommended just this over the years – most recently in May 2017 through a joint report from PILnet and DLA Piper entitled THIS WAY – Finding Community Legal Assistance in Hong Kong.
With the government weighing up how best to make use of a substantial financial surplus, it is time to seize this opportunity and invest wisely for the future.
The Budget 2018-19 provides the perfect chance for the government to revisit the issue of free provision of legal representation, and ensure that those at the margin of Hong Kong’s society, such as the elderly, do not go unnoticed.
Simon Henderson is Senior Policy Advisor at Justice Centre Hong Kong. Justice Centre has made a submission to the 2018-19 Budget Consultation.