The A2J Fellowship aims to address the social issue of access to justice - specifically, the social, economic, and institutional barriers to access to justice in Hong Kong, which most adversely affects the marginalised and vulnerable communities in Hong Kong. Although access to justice is guaranteed under the Basic Law and there are existing channels to attain legal assistance, the reality is that these avenues are still insufficient in meeting community needs, meaning that access to justice is often delayed or even denied.
Upon conducting research, including speaking to various academics, NGOs and lawyers, and a survey with law students, we identified deficiencies in the current public interest law landscape impacting the following stakeholders:
NGOs ○ GRASSROOTS COMMUNITIES ○ LAW STUDENTS
When marginalised communities encounter legal problems, NGOs in Hong Kong are often the first contact point for these individuals.
This is backed up by PILnet Hong Kong’s 2017 study, where PILnet interviewed 11 NGOs and found they collectively assisted close to 8,000 legal cases in 2015 - this illustrates just how overstretched NGOs are by the communities’ overwhelming legal needs. Social, economic, legal and institutional barriers hinder the ability of NGOs to access legal resources and support systems, such that access to justice for the vulnerable communities they serve are often delayed or even denied.
The A2J Fellowship addresses this by placing law graduates into partnering NGOs for 10 months to undertake quasi-legal capacity building projects, which aim to enhance NGOs’ internal capacity to handle cases with legal elements.
Even though our Fellow will not be giving any legal advice, they will be working on capacity-building projects such as developing a case database, legal education for the NGOs’ staff and its beneficiaries, and research for policy advocacy, etc. These skills and projects can be integrated in the NGOs and allow it to become more self-sustainable, such that the NGO can continue to make use of the capacity building even after the Fellow leaves.
The limited ability of NGOs in using relevant legislation, common law, and legal procedures to aid their clients in solving legal problems directly impacts the grassroots communities they serve and their access to justice.
According to PILnet’s study, the lack of internal legal expertise has impeded NGOs from (i) providing early legal assistance to prevent clients from having to go down the route of litigation; (ii) providing suitable and targeted legal information to clients; (iii) following up on the legal advice provided by lawyers in the interim (between meetings); and (iv) handling urgent cases (e.g. where injunction has to be sought / there is a short time-limit for the claim).
The Access to Justice Fellowship’s aim is for our Fellows to develop sustainable models that fit with the long-term legal needs of the NGOs, and in turn strengthen their ability in serving grassroots communities.
The legal landscape for public interest law (PIL) in Hong Kong is considerably undersaturated. With only a handful of law firms specialising in public interest litigation, the limited allocation of resources towards PIL, and the regulatory restrictions on legal practice within NGOs, the opportunities for law students and graduates to explore PIL are limited. In a student survey we conducted, 78% of respondents said that they were interested in PIL, while only 28% said that their law schools provided enough opportunities for them to explore public interest law. With limited training and career opportunities, students lack exposure and understanding in PIL practice.
Our fellows, who are placed in NGOs, will gain first-hand experience working with the community they are serving, and will be able to carry this forward in the future, whether it be joining NGOs, working in existing public interest law firms, or joining commercial firms and making positive changes in the pro bono departments.