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Thursday, September 25, 2014, 11:01

A case for legal assistance

By Frannie Guan in Hong Kong
A case for legal assistance

Students discuss cases with their professor from the Faculty of Law at HKU. The Clinical Legal Education course has helped more than 460 clients.

The lives of Liu Pik-yee, 43, and her husband are slowly returning to normal. Their faith in Hong Kong’s legal system has been restored, thanks to the efforts of a group of law students from the University of Hong Kong (HKU), and a program offering legal assistance to needy litigants.

Just two years ago, the future looked promising for Liu and her Pakistani husband. He had opened a small business, selling second-hand electrical appliances in Sham Shui Po. Their world came crashing down in December 2012 when the husband was arrested on charges of assaulting a 13-year-old girl.

“I knew he was innocent. He is such an honest, kind-hearted guy who would never do anything like that,” said Liu. “He just fell into a trap.” Liu was convinced her husband was framed by a former business associate, a man with unsavory connections.

Liu pored over the police report, checking for possible contradictions. How could her husband just slip his hand underneath the girl’s blouse as his accuser alleged? It was December. People wear heavy clothes in winter.

Liu had hired a renowned lawyer but he failed to win the case. Liu’s husband was convicted and sentenced to six months in jail.

“I thought such a famous lawyer would be well-prepared, and at least question the charges raised against my husband that looked dubious. But he did not,” said Liu, “I realized later that he did not spend much effort on my case.” The bill came to HK$90,000.

Liu found a new lawyer who said it would cost them another HK$170,000 to appeal her husband’s conviction. She saw no other option.

“A criminal record would completely ruin my husband’s life. How could he find a job again?” Besides, Liu felt strongly that her husband should not pay for a crime he did not commit.

The last resort

It was around this time she heard the Faculty of Law at HKU had a program to help people in legal straits. As part of the Clinical Legal Education course, needy litigants had their cases taken up by undergraduate and postgraduate law students, free of charge.

The lawyer who argued Liu’s case before the Court of Appeal was Eric Cheung Tat-ming, principal lecturer and director of the Clinical Legal Education course at HKU.

“If medical students can practice with real patients before they become doctors, why not law students?” asked Cheung. HKU was the first university in Hong Kong to offer students practical legal experience while still at school.

Cheung went before the Court of Appeal and challenged the conviction, citing incompetence of defense counsel at the first trial. The couple’s lawyer had failed to submit into evidence a witness statement in which the father of the accuser cast doubt on the girl’s integrity by implying she may have had underworld connections. The lawyer failed to call two witnesses who had been in the shop at the time of the alleged incident. He also failed to call Liu to attest to her husband’s good character and ignored the husband’s request that he testify in his own defense.

The HKU lawyer presented the court with non-disclosure evidence by the prosecution – a Social Enquiry Report on Suspected Child Abuse, which concluded the accuser was of dubious character and credibility.

Finally, Cheung argued that the presiding magistrate at the first trial erred, by failing to consider the improbability of the girl’s account of the incident.

The conviction was thrown out by the Court of Appeal. Liu and her husband got their lives back.

Vienne Fung, 21, a law student who took the Clinical Legal Education course last year, said the most challenging element proved to be interviewing clients. “We were nervous meeting clients. My partner and I would meet in advance and discuss questions we should ask,” Fung said.

Liu recalled how she cried during the 30-minute interview with the two students responsible for her case.

Florence Lau, one of the students, said Liu’s tears were typical of people who had nothing left to fight with. Lau added it was an opportunity for students to learn how to gather critical information from clients.

Around 60 students attend the program every year. As of June 2014, they have helped more than 460 clients.

Three principal lecturers are aided by 50 qualified members of Hong Kong’s legal community. Cheung said applicants to the program are assessed on the basis of academic performance and willingness to serve the society. The program is meant to encourage graduates to spend part of their course work helping those who could not afford lawyers.

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