To the general public, what is the law?
Is it social rules resulting from the combination of redundant words?
Is it complex provisions that are irrelevant and distant to them?
The Clinical Legal Education Course (CLE) is part of the undergraduate programmes offered at the Faculty of Law of The University of Hong Kong (HKU). Under the guidance of professors, student volunteers assist duty lawyers in providing legal service to members of the public who are seeking legal advice. While gaining practising experience, students also learn how to listen to and respect the people in need. As for members of the public in need, not only do they enjoy free legal advice, but are also provided with the support throughout an exhausting litigation process. Since its launch in 2010, CLE has handled 1 545 cases up to 3 December 2018.
Several months ago, Ben saw a recruitment advertisement on a job search website for the position of “Guesthouse Front Desk Trainee”. Hired after a formal interview, he hoped that the job would enable him to support his livelihood as well as pursue his further study in Japanese.
One day, Ben checked a customer in as usual. Soon after the customer entered the room, three inspectors from the Office of Licensing Authority (OLA) rushed into the guesthouse, while the customer who went into the room also identified himself as an undercover agent of OLA. They took a statement from Ben on the site, charging him of allegedly “managing” an unlicensed guesthouse. However, the person-in-charge and manager of the guesthouse, who were in higher ranks than Ben, were not prosecuted.
Managing an unlicensed guesthouse is a criminal offence that can lead to a fine and a criminal record upon conviction. Ben sought multiple legal advice, all of which suggested that he should plead guilty and pay an affordable fine (HKD 10,000) to prevent long judicial proceedings and high legal costs.
Nevertheless, Ben understood that he would have a criminal record if he pleaded guilty easily. Not to mention that he firmly believed in his innocence since he truly was not aware that the guesthouse was unlicensed when he started working there. In addition, it was most infuriating that the recruitment advertisement by the concerned guesthouse was still posted on the job search website after the incident.
With nowhere else to turn to, Ben sought help from the Faculty of Law of HKU and hence was assigned with the duty lawyers and student volunteers to take care of his case. He was found guilty in the first instance and appealed, but the duty lawyers and the student volunteers did not give up helping him.
Finally, he lodged an appeal to the Court of Final Appeal, which ruled in favour of him. Not only did the ruling clear his name, but it also changed the court’s interpretation of “manage” in the relevant legislation.
Through this case, students at the Faculty of Law of HKU hope that the community will reflect on the legislative intent of the relevant legislation. Aspiring to seek justice for members of the public, law students certainly aim high. Yet, litigation is very time-consuming that it inevitably affects people’s daily lives, even if they win the case in the end. From the trial to having his conviction quashed upon appeal, Ben underwent judicial proceedings lasting for 2 years and 4 months. The psychological burden borne by him was indeed unimaginable to outsiders. So how do law students strike a balance between “seeking justice” and “people’s feelings”? In addition, what other experience and sentiment, which are not found in books, would CLE offer?