A pilot scheme paying lawyers fixed fees instead of hourly rates to advise torture claimants has helped Hong Kong’s Immigration Department overcome a backlog of cases a year earlier than expected, the city’s Security Bureau said on Tuesday.
But a human rights lawyer has raised concerns over the quality of work provided under the programme, which was criticised by legal groups when launched more than a year ago.
The government has since 2009 offered free assistance under the Duty Lawyer Service, which is run by the Bar Association and Law Society with public funding. This scheme offers claimants advice on application procedures and the merits of an appeal if a claim is rejected by the Immigration Department. It helped 2,000 claimants in 2012 and 3,200 in 2015. But the latter figure was only about 65 per cent of the 5,000 claims filed to the department that year.
The bureau then launched a pilot project in September 2017 with a different pay structure which was aimed at expediting the handling of pending claims. Lawyers are paid a standard legal fee per case under this new programme. Those involved have so far handled 2,400 claims.
Principal Assistant Secretary for Security Billy Woo Tak-ying told lawmakers on Tuesday that the new pay structure had succeeded in helping speed up the process.
The number of pending claims in the city had dropped by more than 90 per cent to 540, Woo said.
He expected all screening of claims to be complete in the first quarter of this year.
However, about 6,500 cases were awaiting appeal, and Woo estimated more than half of these claimants would end up seeking a judicial review if they lost.
The revised pay system would be reviewed before a decision was made on its future, he added.
Before the pilot was introduced, the Bar Association and the Law Society raised concerns over the impartiality of the government-run scheme.
Human rights lawyer Mark Daly echoed those concerns on Tuesday, and described the changes as a draconian measure.
“There seems not to have been much scrutiny over the fairness of the pilot scheme,” he said.
“There should not just be efficiency. There should be fairness as well.”
The success rate of claimants using the old Duty Lawyer Service was absurdly low at less than 1 per cent, Daly said. In countries with well-developed refugee systems that figure ranges from 20 to 40 per cent.
Hong Kong is obliged to screen protection claims made on grounds of torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, or persecution.
The city is subject to the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Non-refoulement is the principle of not sending someone to a place where they may be persecuted. Should a non-refoulement claim be substantiated in Hong Kong, authorities will refer the case to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to arrange resettlement to a third country.
Of about 20,000 applications the government has processed since 2009, only 151 have been substantiated.