Lawmakers on Wednesday accused the head of Hong Kong’s equality watchdog of cronyism and poor governance as they questioned its decision to hire a former official with no experience in legal and anti-discrimination work to lead a review of its operation.
The “unproductive” legal team drew fire at Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) chairman Alfred Chan Cheung-ming after it emerged that the watchdog, with its eight in-house lawyers, had only processed 47 applications last year and given legal assistance in just 26 cases.
The Legislative Council’s constitutional affairs panel passed a non-binding motion calling for an independent inquiry into the EOC’s governance as Chan faced them on Wednesday to brief them on the watchdog’s work.
Several lawmakers accused the commission of poor governance, highlighting the appointment of John Leung Chi-fai, a former assistant director of health, as the chief project manager to lead the review of the EOC’s complaint-handling and legal assistance procedures.
“Why would the commission spend such a huge sum of money – HK$120,000 a month – to hire this person?” Civic Party lawmaker Dennis Kwok said, pointing out that a former High Court judge had already been invited to advise on the review.
“Why would the commission hire him when he has no experience in any anti-discrimination work and human rights law whatsoever?”
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Another opposition lawmaker, Claudia Mo Man-ching, accused Chan of cronyism in wasting taxpayers’ money to hire an old friend who had “achieved nothing”.
Admitting he knew Leung personally, Chan said he had been hired as chief project manager through open recruitment while the EOC chief himself had stayed out of the selection process.
Chan insisted Leung – who was well-versed in management and handling complaints – also had “relevant” experience in human rights law, but he could not substantiate the claim under repeated questioning by Kwok.
The Equal Opportunity Action Coalition, which had campaigned for the EOC review, said it had once recommended two human rights experts – Professor Carole Petersen and University of Hong Kong law academic Kelley Loper – to take the lead, which both had agreed to. But the watchdog eventually picked Leung for the job.
Other lawmakers also raised concerns about the high turnover rate at the EOC’s complaint services division – with at least six vacancies in the 20-strong unit – as they accused the watchdog’s legal counsel of not doing their part in helping complainants.
The Labour Party’s Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung questioned why the EOC would outsource the work of legal representation to private lawyers, while its own in-house counsel had not appeared in court since 2010.
He also accused the watchdog of misleading the public by claiming 70 per cent of the complaints were resolved through conciliation while in fact only 27 per cent of the cases were resolved in this way while the rest remained unsettled.
Chan countered that not all in-house counsel were experts in legal representation and it was in the complainants’ best interests to outsource the job to private lawyers.
A spokesman for the EOC said the number of cases involving legal assistance should not be the sole indicator to evaluate the effectiveness of the work of its legal team, as a number of factors that could not be controlled – such as the complexity of cases and strength of evidence – were also taken into consideration in deciding whether to grant legal assistance.
The legal services division was also responsible for providing internal legal advice and support, apart from processing applications for legal assistance, he added.