I have recently been attending these roundtables attended by a variety of the international law firms, and some in-house lawyers, about once every few months, and only then did it dawn on me as to why there was so little pro bono in Hong Kong. In short – it’s just very impractical because of the way the legal system works here.
That Hong Kong practices in the bifurcated system makes carrying on pro bono litigation very tough since without a barrister agreeing to also go pro bono, the case cannot go to court. Fortunately the HK Bar Association has a legal referral service for pro bono cases, but unfortunately, even if all the barristers in HK agreed to donate a few hours, there aren’t enough barristers to go around!
Then there’s the issue of fee shifting. In Hong Kong, losers pay the winner’s litigation costs. While this may be a small matter in a simple contract case, and obviously the parties will work out how the indigent loser will manage that, but sometimes it means completely deterring a perfectly good case of a certain order of magnitude – especially cases for public policy. A good example of such a case is one I did participate in pro bono in NY to bring a class action arguing that legal representation for the indigent was inadequate. In a case like this in Hong Kong, or any case that would disrupt the social structure of the region, big guns – Queen’s Counsel – are frequently hired from abroad to fight – and so where would our indigent clients be if they lose?
The other two impediments are language and qualification. International firms still hire many non-Chinese speakers, or non-Cantonese speakers, and without that you probably cannot communicate with your potential indigent client. And if you are a foreign qualified lawyer, your utility is further reduced to nil.
For these main reasons, there is a lot of limitation on what lawyers can do pro bono, especially when they want to do “real” legal work.