Face to Face with Thomas Edward Kwong, Director of Legal Aid

Thomas Edward Kwong is the mastermind behind one of the world’s most efficient and accessible legal aid services. Starting out his career as a Legal Aid Counsel in 1987, he was handed the top job as the Director of Legal Aid in 2013. Looking back at his five-year tenure, he shares his journey to the top and his noble ambition to help those in need.

Deep Family Roots with Law

Growing up and being educated in Australia, Kwong gained an interest in reading law when he was still in high school, but his relationship with legal work started long before then.

Kwong’s grandfather was a respected scholar in Taishan, Guangdong province, who was always ready to extend a helping hand. “I never met my grandfather, but my father used to tell me stories about him and how he helped people in need back in our ancestral village on legal matters,” he says.

According to Kwong, his father would have followed in his grandfather’s footsteps had it not been for the outbreak of World War II during which he fled to Hong Kong on his own and later migrated to Melbourne, Australia.

“My father taught me a lot about values in life; they include honesty, fairness and always be ready to help those in need. Sadly, he passed away the same year I joined the Legal Aid Department. So, it was my grandfather, whom I have never met, and my late father who inspired me to become a legal aid lawyer,” Kwong says.

Being the eldest son, Kwong’s mother always wanted him to stay close to the family but his desire to be more independent led him to Sydney to attend university there instead.

“I was 18 years old when I left Melbourne for Sydney boarding at a university college as an interstate student. I was rather active on campus advocating students’ rights and equality whilst promoting cultural exchange and interaction between local and overseas students. I also enjoyed holding tutorial classes on law subjects for college students and offered advice on tackling legal issues to students in need,” Kwong recalls.

Kwong graduated with Bachelor of Political Science and Bachelor of Laws before completing his legal training at the Australian College of Law. He was admitted as Solicitor of the Supreme Court of New South Wales in 1986, and later as Solicitor of the Supreme Court of England and Wales and the High Court of Hong Kong in 1994.

Pursuing a Career in Legal Aid

After gaining his professional qualifications, Kwong received offers to practice law in Australia, which could bring him closer to his family, but after seeing a recruitment advertisement from the Hong Kong government about a Legal Aid Counsel opening, he made up his mind that this was what he truly wanted.

Kwong said he knew deep down that his mother really wanted him to be by her side, but as the role took him in the direction of what he wanted for his future career, she gave him her blessings.

“All these years my mother has always given me unreserved support in my choice of career. I remembered she said to me ‘so long as you work hard towards becoming the best in what you do, you will have my total support’. With that in mind, I returned to Hong Kong to begin my career in legal aid,” Kwong says.

Looking Back at the First Five Years in Office

Starting out as a legal aid counsel in 1987, Kwong was promoted to Deputy Director of Legal Aid in 2008, before he was handed the top job in 2013, to succeed William Chan Heung Ping.

Strengthening communication with stakeholders in order to enhance access to justice was Kwong’s top priority when he first took office.

“I believe that good communication is a very important element if we are going to get anything done when it comes to making policy decisions which affect stakeholders with different interests. The key is to listen to our stakeholders with an open mind even though at times the opinions offered may not necessarily be in line with what you have in mind. I found that, quite often, good ideas may arise through such dialogue,” Kwong says.

Over the past five years, Kwong has actively engaged stakeholders, including The Law Society of Hong Kong, Hong Kong Barrister Association, the Legal Aid Services Council, NGOs, legislative and district councilors and legal aid applicants on how to enhance the services of the Legal Aid Department.

With the support of the Legislative Council and the two legal professional bodies, the Department revised the method for computation of contributions and increased the financial eligibility limits for legal aid under both the ordinary and supplementary legal aid schemes.

Kwong’s commitment to service excellence has been rewarded with multiple awards. The Department was awarded the “Award of The Ombudsman’s Award 2015 for Public Organisations” and the “Grand Award of The Ombudsman’s Award 2016 for Public Organisations”.

Five individual officers of the Department have also been awarded “The Ombudsman’s Award for Officers of Public Organisations” over the past five years for their significant contribution in improving public service over a sustained period of time.

Making Legal Aid More Accessible

When it comes to making the legal aid service of Hong Kong more accessible, the numbers speak for themselves.

At present, over 72 percent of legally aided persons are not required to pay any contribution. Further, following a comprehensive review of criminal legal aid fees, substantial upward adjustments have been made on the fees payable to counsel (50 percent), solicitor advocate (40 percent), and instructing solicitor (25 percent), undertaking criminal legal aid work.

From 2013 to 2017, the overall success rate for civil cases where the outcome was in favour of the legally-aided person remained relatively high at 88-91 percent.

In respect to criminal legal aid, currently 83 percent of all criminal cases in the District Court, 98 percent of all criminal trials in the Court of First Instance and the vast majority of criminal appeals heard before the Court of Final Appeal were legal aid cases.

Kwong is also proud to highlight the overall satisfaction level of users of legal aid services has peaked to 90 percent.

Besides making the service more accessible, the Department has also put a lot of effort into ensuring all legal aid applications are thoroughly considered and all applications are processed by professional officers in accordance with the Legal Aid Ordinance.

When complicated legal issues are involved, in the absence of precedents, independent counsel and expert advice will be sought before the Department come to a decision.

“If an application is refused, we will explain to the applicant the reasons for refusal and will advise the applicant the right of appeal before the Registrar of the High Court whose decision is final,” Kwong says.

When legal aid is granted, certificates are usually limited to certain scope of work or stages of the proceedings. This enables the Department to monitor the development of the case and ensure that the continuance of legal aid is justified in terms of the merits of the case before further extension. Otherwise, legal aid may be discharged.

The hard work by Kwong and his team has gained wide recognition from the legal community. In a recent judgment, the Court of Final Appeal stated that “as the evidence before the court showed, Hong Kong’s relatively generous system of legal aid (compared with many other jurisdictions) has ensured that most cases of public importance have over the years been determined by the courts. This has also been the judiciary’s experience.”

Future Goals and Priorities

In terms of goals and priorities for 2019, Kwong hopes the Department will be able to introduce legislative amendments to expand the scope of the Supplementary Legal Aid Scheme to cover civil proceedings in respect to monetary claims for professional negligence against financial intermediaries to benefit the “sandwich class”.

As for the Ordinary Legal Aid Scheme, for the benefit of aided persons in matrimonial and personal injuries cases, the Department will be introducing legislative amendments to increase by about 80 percent (1) the amount of monthly maintenance that may be exempted from the Director’s first charge and (2) the amount of first charge which the Director may waive in cases of serious hardship under Sections 18A(5) and 19B(1)(a) of the Legal Aid Ordinance.

Kwong adds that the Department is currently conducting a feasibility study to revamp the existing computerised system (Case Management and Case Accounting System) and the related workflow.

“Hopefully, the project will help us to identify areas for achieving greater efficiency through the use of information technology. In the meantime, we will continue to listen to views from our stakeholders on how we can improve the delivery of legal aid service to meet the community’s needs,” he says.

Kwong is aware that some panel members have raised concerns about the time required for the full payment of their fees in civil cases. He has been in close communication with the two legal professional bodies to identify the problems and pledges to continue to resolve any misunderstanding whilst identifying means to further expedite the payment of fees.

So far, certain areas of delay and misunderstanding have been identified. They include (1) omission in the submission of fee notes to the Department; (2) extended period of time required for: (i) the clarification of work done by the fee earner during costs assessment, (ii) party and party costs negotiation with the non-legally aided party and (iii) the preparation of bill of costs for taxation which is particularly the case for matters involving re-assignment of legal teams during the course of the proceedings.

Kwong pointed out that under the Legal Aid Ordinance, the Department can only make interim payments up to a maximum of 75 percent of the amount of the fees that could be recovered upon taxation rather than the amount as stated in the fee note and the balance of the fees (whether agreed or taxed) can only be paid upon conclusion of the proceedings which may take a longer period of time if it is a complicated case.

The Family Man

Family has always had a huge influence on Kwong. Although he might not be able to spend a lot of time at home due to his hectic schedule, he has always tried his best to be there for his family and is extremely grateful for what his wife has done for him throughout the years.

“My wife became the second person in my life who has had the greatest influence in my career, besides my mother. She gave up her career in visual design to look after the family so that I can concentrate wholeheartedly on my career in legal aid,” he says.

Kwong recalled that back in the late 1990s, he was dealing with thousands of urgent rights of abode related legal aid applications from Mainland children born of Hong Kong permanent residents. At that time, when he used to get home very late daily, his wife would take care of the children on her own and would stay up to have late dinners with him. “All these years, my better half has given me tremendous support and encouragement in my work,” he says.

Despite a busy schedule, Kwong makes it a point to return home by 8pm to be with his family and tries to stay away from work on weekends. “This is a priority of mine, but it is easier said than done. Occasionally there will be urgent matters on the weekend and I must come back to the office to take care of it. Maybe seeing me having to deal with this hectic work schedule has ‘scared’ my kids off from pursuing a career in law,” he jokes.

Kwong, who has a son and a daughter, says he gives them total freedom to decide to pursue their own interests, and he is quite sure both have no interest in pursuing a career in law.

“My son is about to graduate from university and he wants to pursue a career in industrial design. My younger daughter took legal studies in secondary school, but teaching is what she is really passionate about,” he adds.

Kwong was blessed that his mother respected his decision and gave him freedom to do what he wanted, and he plans to do the same with his children. Like his mother, Kwong only has one request for his children when it comes to making career choices - work hard towards becoming the best in what you do.

Words of Wisdom for Young Lawyers

Kwong pointed to integrity as the number one value for lawyers to uphold. “It is something that you must never compromise. Be true to yourself. Be fair and treat everyone equally and with respect. Be humble and be ready to listen with an open mind. When you take on a task, always give it your very best and work with sheer determination,” he says.

For those who want to pursue a career in legal aid, Kwong advises them to be prepared to have empathy and the patience to help people in need.

“A career in the Legal Aid Department can be very interesting as our work covers a broad spectrum of civil and criminal law as well as in-house litigation for those who enjoy advocacy work,” he says.

“Finally, no matter what type of career you want to pursue, you will need to have passion in what you do as this is where you may eventually find your job satisfaction,” he concludes. 

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Lead Editor, The Hong Kong Lawyer