In an exciting victory at the Hong Kong High Court, Justice Without Borders and law firm partner, Dechert LLP won legal aid for a worker who had returned home to the Philippines.1 This victory ensures that the worker can now proceed with her claim against her employer, even from abroad.
Anna* had previously worked as a domestic worker in Hong Kong. Having faced alleged wrongful dismissal, she has sought compensation against her employer and the chance to clear her employment record. Anna’s case has faced complications at the Labour Tribunal, creating the need to secure legal aid as her claim progresses deeper into Hong Kong’s court system.
WHEN INTERNATIONAL MIGRANT WORKERS NEED LOCAL LEGAL AID
Anna’s case is likely just one of many that fail without legal aid. Having returned home to the Philippines, Anna faced responsibilities for parents and children that prevent her from easily returning to Hong Kong. The Labour Tribunal had rejected her request to use a video link to give evidence, leading to an appeal to the High Court. Without legal aid to pay for the impending court fees, her case was all but dead.
AT ISSUE: DOES THE CLAIM OR THE LAW JUSTIFY LEGAL AID?
The Director of the Legal Aid Department refused Anna’s application, stating that her compensation claim was too small to justify legal aid, given the court costs involved.2
Fortunately, the appeals officer sided with Anna, concluding that costs alone are not enough to decide whether a plaintiff could receive legal aid. Anna’s personal circumstances, prospects of a clean employment record and access to justice were just as important.3
For Anna of course, the claim was not small at all. Together, her case would amount to over six months of her family’s income in the Philippines.
THE CASE CONTINUES, BUT A PRECEDENT OFFERS HOPE FOR OTHERS
Despite the victory, securing legal aid is only another step in Anna’s case. She now faces a separate High Court hearing over her application to appear via video link for her case in the Labour Tribunal. The outcome of the appeal will determine whether she can progress with her claim.
For other workers, however, this successful appeal offers hope. There are many who must return home before they can bring their case, and access to legal aid after they have left Hong Kong could make the difference between obtaining just compensation and remaining empty handed. Hopefully, future applicants can build on this successful application and those with valid claims can more easily pursue them, even after returning home.
* The appellant’s real name has been changed to protect her identity.
1 The underlying case was referred to JWB by HELP for Domestic Workers. Support at the Labour Tribunal has been provided by the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions and Dechert LLP. Client support in the Philippines provided by the International Pro Bono Alliance.
2 The Director referred to s.10(3)(c) of the Legal Aid Ordinance (Cap. 91).
3 Additionally, the Master agreed with the appellant’s suggestion that the Director could exercise discretion to waive the need to repay the legal aid if she won the case. This could have a significant impact on the amount of compensation Anna could ultimately recover.