Opening Statement of the Director of Administration at the
Meeting of the Administration of Justice and Legal Services Panel of the Legislative Council to be held on 13 October 1999
The 1999 Policy Objective of the Administration Wing is contained in the document "Administration Redress and Legal Aid". This document describes a package of measures in pursuit of the Administration Wing's Policy Objective of providing avenues for administrative redress and legal aid services as well as giving quality support to the Government Secretariat and maintaining an efficient protocol service.
2. In the past year, we have been working on 19 targets under a total of 15 initiatives that we have undertaken in 1998 and before. The areas covered include the provision of channels for administrative redress and legal aid services, maintaining effective communication between Government and the Legislature, provision of support to the Government Secretariat and to the management of government records, as well as the reception of VIPs and the administration of the consular corps' affairs. I am pleased to report to Members that we have completed 8 targets, 10 are proceeding on schedule, and another one (concerning the strengthening of the directorate of the Application and Processing Division of the Legal Aid Department (LAD)) is under review.
3. I shall briefly report on the progress that we have made in the past year and the direction that we will be heading in the coming twelve months regarding a few subject areas that will be of interest to this Panel.
Maintaining public confidence in independent redress
4. It is our aim to continue to provide fair, open and accessible avenues for members of the public to lodge appeals and complaints against administrative decisions and measures. The main channels of lodging appeals include the Administrative Appeals Board and the Municipal Services Appeals Board, the Ombudsman, as well as the Visiting Justices of the Peace (JPs) under the JP System.
5. Recently, the efficiency in hearing appeals by the Administrative Appeals Board and the Municipal Services Appeals Boards has been enhanced with the appointment of a High Court Judge and a District Court Judge as additional Deputy/Vice Chairmen to the two Boards. In the coming year, we shall increase the number of sittings for the two Boards from a total of 3 sittings to 4 sittings each month so as to further reduce the time required for an appeal to be heard after it has been filed. Our target for the coming year is to ensure that an appeal to the Administrative Appeals Board or the Municipal Services Appeals Boards will be heard within an average of 4 and 3 months respectively after it has been filed.
6. As regards the Ombudsman as a channel of redress, we have extended the jurisdiction of the Ombudsman earlier this year to cover four additional statutory bodies, namely, the Employees Retraining Board, the Hong Kong Examination Authority, the Hong Kong Sports Development Board and the Mandatory Provident Fund Schemes Authority. The Ombudsman now has jurisdiction over practically all Government departments and 18 statutory bodies, and we shall continue to keep under review the possibility of further extending her jurisdiction to other major statutory bodies.
7. The Visiting JP System is an important channel for redress for inmates of various institutions (e.g. penal institutions). Earlier this year, we have completed a review of the JP system and formulated a number of improvement proposals. In the coming year, we shall be implementing the various proposals to improve the Visiting JP System, which include, inter alia, allowing JPs to visit particular institutions of their choice on a more regular basis, to provide JPs with more up-to-date information on the institutions before their visit, to allow more time for JPs to submit their comments regarding their visits, and to start publishing annual reports on JP visits to various institutions. With such improvements, we shall hope to make our Visiting JP System more efficient, effective and transparent.
Provide efficient legal aid services
8. Closely linked to the provision of avenues for redress is the provision of legal aid services. Our objective in this area is to ensure that no one with reasonable grounds for pursuing a legal action is prevented from seeking justice because of lack of means. In the year, we completed the Legal Aid Policy Review. A total of 17 recommendations, which seek both to expand the scope of the legal aid schemes and to improve existing services, are being progressively implemented through administrative and legislative means. We shall provide a series of new service, such as provision of legal assistance to the next of kin of the deceased for cases of significant public concern and for "properly interested persons" in coroner's inquests, upon the enactment of the Legal Aid (Amendment) Bill 1999, which will be introduced into the Legislative Council (LegCo) this afternoon. The recommendations of the Policy Review will also allow 58% of the total number of households (i.e. over 1 million families) in Hong Kong to become financially eligible for legal aid, up from 48% (i.e. about 0.8 million families) under the existing arrangement.
9. Throughout the years, we have striven to strengthen legal aid services both through increase in financial commitment and expansion of service. Our effort is evident from the six-fold increase in legal aid expenditure in terms of litigation cost over the last 10 years. Actual expenditure in terms of litigation cost for legal aid cases has increased from $81 million in 1988/89 to $518 million in 1998/99. LAD's estimated expenditure on litigation cost for 1999/2000 is $669 million. Today's legal aid system has grown to one which covers all criminal cases and a wide range of civil cases including matrimonial disputes, personal injuries claims, employment disputes, contractual disputes, to name but a few.
10. In our consideration of the Legal Aid Services Council (LASC)'s recommendation on the establishment of an independent legal aid authority, we also focused our attention on the need to bring real benefits to users of the legal aid scheme. We note from the report prepared by the consultants commissioned by LASC and our own research that while a number of common law jurisdictions (such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK) have in place an independent legal aid authority, they are invariably faced with the pressure to contain costs and reduce service. They are in fact moving towards a more restrictive legal aid system at different pace. We also note that all the jurisdictions (i.e. Australia, Canada, and New Zealand) have a finite legal aid budget, and are only able to meet an ever-increasing demand for legal aid through imposing ceilings for expenditure on individual cases, or reduction of commitment through narrowing the scope of service. Even England and Wales, which originally have in place an independent authority with unlimited budget, have enacted legislation in July this year to cap the funds provided for legal aid in the light of rapid growth of cost.
11. Such overseas experience suggests that it is the interest of potential legal aid recipients that might be jeopardised if a fixed budget system were to be introduced. On the other hand, if we were to agree to the disestablishment of the Legal Aid Department (LAD) and the establishment of an independent legal aid authority with an infinite budget, we would be faced with a series of questions involving accountabilities, such as the means to ensure effective use of resources and efficient operations of the authority, all of which are difficult to resolve. Indeed, none of the overseas jurisdictions examined have been able to tackle the problems brought about by an independent legal aid authority which has no funding cap. It should also be noted that according to the consultants commissioned by LASC, the majority of the community groups consulted believe that legal aid is administered independently in Hong Kong. There was greater concern over the quality of service provided. Legal practitioners consulted by the LASC's consultants also consider that legal aid is administered independently in most cases, although some believe that in certain sensitive cases affecting the Government there is insufficient transparency, or that it is not seen to be independent. The consultants also recognised that there are safeguards in the current system to protect the independence of legal aid administration. Such safeguards include, for example, a statutory requirement for the Director of Legal Aid (DLA) to consider all cases independently, and a mechanism whereby persons whose application for legal aid is rejected by DLA can appeal to the Judiciary (Registrar, High Court). It should also be noted that 75% of legal aid cases are assigned to lawyers in private practice.
12. Taking into account overseas experience, as well as the Government's long-established principle of prudence management of public money, and the possible unsettling effect that could have on the staff of LAD, our conclusion is that the present legal aid system with an open-ended budget is best placed to achieve our policy objective. We will continue to ensure a high degree of public satisfaction in respect of legal aid services, and conduct regular reviews on legal aid services to look for ways to better achieve this objective. In the coming year, the LAD will launch a new performance pledge on payments related to legal aid cases. Implementation of the Information Systems Strategy, which will bring about speedier processing of applications and payments, and better case management, will begin. This will bring about savings because of improved efficiency and elimination of duplicated work process. We continue to look to Members for support in our effort to better administer the legal aid schemes.
Maintain effective communication between Government and the Legislature
13. Another important aspect of the work of the Administration Wing is the maintenance of effective communication between the Government and the Legislature. The Administration fully appreciates the need to work closely with the legislature to enable it to carry out its business efficiently and effectively for the benefit of the community at large. In the past legislative session, we worked closely with LegCo on various fronts on a day to day basis. For instance, we put forward over 120 government bills, 320 pieces of subsidiary legislation and 79 financial proposals for LegCo to scrutinize and approve in the last session. We answered a total of over 2 000 oral, supplementary or written questions raised by Members at Council meetings. Government officials also attended more than 290 panel meetings to explain government policies and proposals to LegCo Members in the past session. In the current legislative session, the legislative workload would continue to be heavy as we envisage some 50 government bills would be introduced as indicated in the legislative programme we passed to Members earlier. We would no doubt continue to work closely with LegCo to ensure that the bills are properly scrutinized before they are passed.
14. To ensure that effective communication between the Administration and the Legislature is maintained, we will continue to arrange meetings between the Chief Secretary for Administration and the Chairman of the LegCo House Committee so that matters of concern to LegCo can be discussed promptly. We will also remind policy bureaux to explain policies and legislative/financial proposals and seek the views of LegCo Members as early as possible before such policies and proposals are finalized. In the coming year, we have set a target of providing supplementary answers to oral questions raised by LegCo Members within three weeks. We also aim to submit progress reports on motion debates carried by LegCo within two months.
15. On the issue of LegCo Rules of Procedure, the Administration and Members have had a number of meetings to exchange views. On this issue, there are differences of opinion between the Administration and LegCo as to how the relevant articles of the Basic Law should apply. We appreciate this is an issue of concern. We hope to keep a dialogue with LegCo with a view to resolving these difficult constitutional issues.
16. On LegCo's accommodation need, we note the LegCo's long term accommodation need for all the legislative facilities to be placed under one roof. We are now looking into possibilities to meet LegCo's wish to have a purpose-built Legislative Council Building and would discuss with LegCo on the best way forward.
Ensure efficient administration of the Consular Corps' affairs and reception of VIPs
17. I do not intend to go into details regarding the work of the Protocol Division of my office in the reception of VIPs and the administration of the consular corps' affairs. However, may I just mention in passing that since the handover, we have been working on two Bills concerning the privileges and immunities of international organizations and the consular corps. One of the two Bills has already been introduced into this Council for its consideration, while we are working on the other one. We hope that these two bills can be passed in this legislative session. At present, we have in Hong Kong a strong presence of foreign representation, with some 96 consular posts, which helps to give us our international flavour. We expect a few more additions in the coming year.
18. As Members will appreciate, the Administration Wing is responsible for a vast variety of policy areas. To help us continue to strive for improvements, I welcome the views and comments from Members of this Council regarding the areas of work falling within the purview of the Administration Wing.