At Issue
11/8/2009 9:31:02 PM EST
Funding public interest litigation in Hong Kong
Karen Kong reviews the funding issues for public interest litigants and calls for a rationalised, balanced approach which will enable meritorious claims to proceed without fear of adverse costs orders.
Posted by LexisNexis

Public interest litigation (PIL) is an important tool for bringing about socio-economic change in many developed and developing countries. This type of legal action is brought by an applicant with no private interest in the subject matter of the case. He does so on behalf of the aggrieved or the under-privileged in order to to uphold their legal rights and pursue the public interest. PIL is said to have found its origin in the landmark US case of Brown v Board of Education of Topeka in 1954, and has since flourished in many developing democracies such as India and South Africa.

The development of PIL is controversial as it challenges existing procedural rules in adversarial trial systems, including standing, justiciability, evidential and costs rules. More fundamentally, it creates tension as to the respective roles of the judiciary and other branches of government. On the other hand, PIL can be justified as a way to enhance the public law principles of fairness and good dministration in public decision-making, with the duty of checking and oversight falling on the court as part of its constitutional role.

In Hong Kong we have seen a growing volume of judicial review applications that resemble public interest litigation in other jurisdictions. There is a developing trend towards using the court as a forum for protest and to pursue changes in public policy, with mixed degrees of success. Examples include the complaint against the reclamation of the Victoria Harbour (2004); the challenge against the Housing Authority’s power to dispose of its retail and car park facilities to the Link Real Estate Investment Trust (2005); the review of the decision refusing to declare the Queen’s Pier a monument (2007); and the challenge against the failure to legislate on minimum wage (2009).

Funding issues

One of the practical difficulties facing public interest litigants is costs. Litigation is expensive, and public interest litigants often have to bear an uncertain risk of legal costs when they decided to pursue a claim in the public interest. As Hartmann J vividly put it, public interest litigants are ‘placing [their] necks beneath the guillotine of costs’: Chan Wai Yip Albert v Secretary for Justice (unreported, HCAL 36/2005). While recognising the difficulty facing public interest litigants, the court and the public funding source have to make the necessary balance between fair use of public money and providing a level playing field between parties in the litigation process.

At present, the main sources of funding for public interest litigants are as follows.

Legal aid
Legal aid for civil proceedings is currently available for persons whose financial resources do not exceed HK$175,800, and the supplementary legal aid scheme is available for persons whose financial resources are between HK$175,800 and HK$488,400. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and charities are not eligible for legal aid. Section 5AA of the Legal Aid Ordinance (Cap 91) gives the Director of Legal Aid a discretionary power to waive the limit of financial resources under the legal aid scheme if the proceeding has reasonable grounds and concerns a breach of the Hong Kong Bill of Rights Ordinance (Cap 383) or an inconsistency with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) as applied to Hong Kong. At present, the provision does not include litigation concerning the Basic Law or other international covenants applicable to Hong Kong, such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

A substantive number of public interest suits in recent years were funded by Legal Aid, where NGOs and political activists sourced applicants who would be qualified under the legal aid scheme to put
forward test cases.

Private funding
NGOs and political activists in Hong Kong may finance public interest litigation from their own pockets, pro bono legal representation, or by fund-raising campaigns. Specialised litigation NGOs, like
the Child Poverty Action Group in the UK or the Public Interest Advocacy Centre in Australia, are yet to be fully developed in Hong Kong. At present, conditional and contingency fee arrangements are prohibited. According to the Court of Final Appeal in Unruh v Seeberger [2007] 2 HKLRD 414; [2007] 2 HKC 609, the tort of champerty and maintenance remains in force in Hong Kong but the ‘access to justice’ exception, relying on Art 35 of the Basic Law, would allow a person to be financed by another to support litigation which would otherwise be stifled because of his lack of financial resources.

Costs orders
While costs are a matter of discretion for the courts, the usual costs order in litigation is costs to follow the event. The rationale is that costs are awarded to compensate the successful party, but are not
imposed as a punishment to the losing party.

When a public interest party is successful in litigation
When a public interest party is successful in litigation he will normally be awarded costs on a party and party basis under O 62 r 28(2) of the Rules of the High Court. In Town Planning Board v Society for
Protection of the Harbour Ltd (No 2) [2004] 2 HKLRD 95, the court exercised its discretion to award a more generous indemnity costs order to the successful public interest litigant under O 62 r 28(3). The Court of Final Appeal explained the grounds for making such an order:

“The fact that proceedings are commenced to vindicate the public interest, more particularly to protect a public asset which is a central element in Hong Kong’s heritage, rather than to assert or enforce some private right or interest, is plainly relevant to the exercise of the discretion. Also relevant is the fact that, but for the commencement of the proceedings by the Society, the public interest in securing compliance with the law would not have prevailed and resulted in the resolution of fundamental legal issues. Likewise relevant are the manifest public importance of the case (the protection of the Harbour) and the Society’s Llimited finances dependent as they are on public donations.”

The court stated that the existence of the above factors indicated that the case possessed special and unusual features that warranted the granting of an indemnity costs order. It is hoped that such discretion may be more generously exercised in deserving and meritorious cases. Normal party and party basis costs means public interest litigants will have to bear about one-third of their legal costs when they succeed in the litigation, which may still be a substantial amount.

When a public interest party is unsuccessful in litigation
The court has from time to time declared that there shall be no order as to costs for the unsuccessful applicants of judicial review on public interest grounds. Two cases can be compared to see how the court determines when the public interest warrants a departure from the usual costs order.

In Leung Kwok Hung v President of Legislative Council of HKSAR [2007] HKCU 738 (unreported, HCAL 87/2006), the applicant made an unsuccessful application for judicial review of the constitutionality
of the Legislative Council rule which precluded a LegCo member from proposing an amendment to a bill that has a charging effect on the revenue at committee stage. In the costs judgment, the court made no order as to costs. Hartmann J was of the view that the applicant’s claim, though unsuccessful, was very much arguable, and that the proceedings had gone a long way towards resolving a dispute on an important interpretation of the Basic Law. Further, the applicant did not institute the proceedings for private gain but to advance a legitimate public interest of real importance to Hong Kong’s constitutional workings. Therefore the appropriate order was held to be one of no order as to costs.

By contrast, the court in Chu Hoi Dick v Secretary for Home Affairs (No 2) [2007] 4 HKC 428 refused to grant a no costs order to the unsuccessful applicant who challenged the decision of the Secretary for Home Affairs refusing to declare the Queen’s Pier a monument under s 3 of the Antiquities and Monuments Ordinance (Cap 53). Lam J laid down the principles as to when a litigation brought in the pursuit of the public interest would warrant a departure from the usual costs order:

1. A litigant has properly brought proceedings to seek guidance from the court on a point of general public importance so that the litigation is for the benefit of the community as a whole to warrant the costs of the litigation be borne by the public purse as costs incidental to good public administration;
2. The judicial decision has contributed to the proper understanding of the law in question;
3. The litigant has no private gain in the outcome.

This case gives a clear and principled approach to awarding costs in PIL. In its application, however, there is a need to avoid an overrestrictive interpretation. For example, ‘general public importance’ should be interpreted to cover matters that impact on a sector, albeit a small sector, of the community; eg litigation to vindicate minority rights, the very essence of PIL, rather than covering only matters that benefit literally the whole public, which may be limited to general environmental issues.

Further, it is a matter of degree whether an applicant has private gain in the outcome. As acknowledged in the subsequent case of Democratic Party v Secretary for Justice [2007] HKCU 2140 (unreported, HCAL 84/2006), an applicant who has locus standi must have sufficient interests in the case, ie he must have some private interests either by way of seeking a gain or preventing a loss. What is required is that the greater public interest is pivotal instead of incidental to the judicial review application.

In Chu Hoi Dick (No 2), it was held that the unsuccessful applicant had to pay the costs of the winning party. The court stated that the subject matter of review, which was the decision of the public authority not to declare the Queen’s Pier a monument, if resolved in the applicant’s favour, would only lead to the remission of matter to the public authority for reconsideration, but without any guarantee that the subject monument would not be demolished. The court required ‘proximity’ between the decision challenged and the matter of general public importance.

The satisfaction of this requirement will depend on the decisionmaking mechanism as laid down in the legislation or government policies, and on the framing of the legal issue by the applicant. Cases in which the court decides to remit matters to be reconsidered by the public authority, especially under a multi-layered decisionmaking system, will have less chance of meeting the requirement. It is proposed that if the decision challenged is an ‘essential step’ towards resolving the issue of general public importance, even though it does not have the direct effect, it should nonetheless satisfy the requirement.

The Chan Noi Heung case
Subsequent case law, Chan Noi Heung v The Chief Executive in Council [2009] 3 HKLRD 362, clarifies the merits requirements for a departure from a usual costs order. This unsuccessful judicial review application concerned whether the government should impose minimum wage in Hong Kong. In the decision on costs, the court held that the case lacked sufficient merits to deserve a departure from the usual costs order. It stated that it is not in the public interest to fund PIL which has no real prospect of success. This ‘real prospect of success’ test is different from the threshold test at the leave stage of proceedings laid down in Po Fun Chan v Winnie Chung [2008] 1 HKLRD 319; [2007] 5 HKC 145 as they are determined at different stages.

In terms of balancing public expenses, departures from the usual costs orders should be restricted to meritorious PIL. However, factoring in the access to justice perspective, more protection should be afforded to public interest litigants. Once public interest litigants pass the leave stage, they should be able to rest assured that the litigation has a realistic prospect of success and thereby invest time and resources in the proceedings. To synchronise the court’s view on the merits by considering the matter as it is at the leave stage would leave public interest litigants with less risk of a shock costs order at the end of the litigation.

Protective costs orders
Alternatively, a more balanced approach would be provided by the use of a protective costs order (PCO). A PCO can be granted to an applicant at any stage of proceedings. It is an order by which a party will not be liable for the other side’s costs if he loses in the litigation, or by which liability for the other side’s costs is capped at a certain amount. The objective of a PCO is to enhance access to justice by ensuring that parties to the PIL are placed on equal footing in terms of financial resources.

In Hong Kong, jurisdiction to grant PCOs was recognised in Chan Wai Yip Albert v Secretary for Justice (unreported, HCAL 36/2005). In the UK, the Court of Appeal in R (on the application of Corner House
Research) v Secretary of State for Trade and Industry
[2005] 4 All ER 1 laid down detailed criteria for granting a PCO:

“(i) the issues raised are of general public importance;
(ii) the public interest requires that those issues should be resolved;
(iii) the applicant has no private interest in the outcome of the case;
(iv) having regard to the financial resources of the applicant and the respondent(s) and to the amount of costs that are likely to be involved it is fair and just to make the order; and
(v) if the order is not made the applicant will probably discontinue the proceedings and will be acting reasonably in so doing.”

PCOs for PIL in the UK were originally granted only in exceptional circumstances, but the exceptionality was subsequently relaxed in R (on the application of Compton) v Wiltshire Primary Care
Trust (Compton)
[2008] EWCA Civ 749 and R (on the application of Buglife: The Invertebrate Conservation Trust) v Thurrock Thames Gateway Development Corp [2008] EWCA Civ 1209. To counterbalance the interests of the defendant public authority and to prevent extravagant spending, the court may cap the costs awarded to the applicant if it wins the litigation.

PCOs are useful in protecting NGOs and individual public interest litigants who are not eligible for legal aid from the uncertain risks of costs liability in the event that they do not succeed in the PIL. The costs incurred by the public purse can be said to help improve access to justice, equality of arms in litigation, and the elucidation of public law which is incidental to good administration. However, the granting of PCOs should be begun cautiously and with a mind for efficiency in order to prevent the expansion of satellite litigation.

Conclusion

The development of a more comprehensive funding regime for PIL in Hong Kong will depend on the strengthening of the above four funding sources. This is the first step towards enhancing access to justice for those who pursue genuine public interest through judicial review in Hong Kong.

 

Karen Kong
Research Assistant Professor
Faculty of Law
The University of Hong Kong

 

香港的公共利益訴訟資助
Karen Kong闡述了公共利益訴訟人的資助問題,並要求採取一個合理和平衡的方法,使具有意義的聲請,能在無懼不利訟費令頒發的情況下開展。

在許多發達國家和發展中國家,公共利益訴訟是實現社會經濟改革的一項重要工具。這一類別的法律行動,由在該案的標的事項中沒有私人利益的申請人所提起。他這樣做,是作為受害人或弱勢社群的代表,以維護他們的合法權益和尋求公眾利益。公共利益訴訟據稱是起源於1954年美國的一宗具重大意義案件Brown v Board of Education of Topeka,並從此在許多發展中的民主國家如印度和南非等蓬勃發展。

公共利益訴訟的發展是具爭議的,因為它挑戰現行的對抗式審判制度程序規則,包括程序、審理、證據和訟費規則。更根本的,是它導致司法機關和政府其他部門之間在各自扮演的角色方面的緊張關係。但另一方面,公共利益訴訟可視為乃加強公法的公平原則,和良好的公共決策行政的途徑,而檢查和監督的責任則落在法院,作為其憲法職能的一部分。

在香港,我們察覺到類似於其他司法管轄區的公共利益訴訟的司法覆核申請,其數量正在不斷上升。目前正有一種發展趨勢,是以法庭作為一個抗議和尋求公共政策改變的審訊地,並取得不同程度的成功,而例子包括反對維多利亞港填海的投訴(2004年);就房屋委員會出售零售和停車場設施給領匯房地產投資信託基金而向房委會的權力所提出的挑戰(2005年);就政府拒絕將皇后碼頭列為法定古蹟的決定所提出的司法覆核(2007年);以及就最低工資的未能制訂向政府提出的挑戰(2009年)。

經費問題

公共利益訴訟人所面對的實際困難是訟費問題。訴訟是昂貴的,在訴訟人決定尋求公共利益聲請時,他們往往要就訴訟費用承擔不確定的風險。正如夏正民法官形象的說法,公共利益訴訟人是「把[其]脖子置於訟費的斷頭台下」:Chan Wai Yip Albert v Secretary for Justice (unreported, HCAL 36/2005)。在承認公共利益訴訟人所面對的困難之同時,法院和公共資金來源,必須在公帑的合理使用和為訴訟程序當事人提供一個公平競爭場地之間尋求必要的平衡。

目前,公共利益訴訟人的主要資金來源如下。

法律援助
目前在民事法律程序中的法律援助,是為財務資源不超過港幣175,800元的人士提供,而補充的法律援助計劃,是為財務資源在港幣175,800元和488,400 元之間的人士提供。非政府組織和慈善機構均沒有資格獲得法律援助。《法律援助條例》(第91章)第5AA條賦予法律援助署署長酌情決定權,可豁免法律援助計劃下的財務資源限制,倘該法律程序具有合理理由,並涉及違反了《香港人權法案條例》(第383章),或是與適用於香港的《公民權利和政治權利國際公約》有抵觸。目前,該規定並不包括《基本法》或其他適用於香港的國際公約,如《經濟、社會和文化權利國際公約》。

近年來,相當數目的公共利益訴訟獲得了法律援助提供,這導致非政府組織和政治活躍人士積極地尋求符合申請法律援助資格的申請人向法庭提出測試性案件。

私人資金
香港的非政府組織和政治活躍人士可以自行資助公共利益訴訟、提供義務法律代表,或是進行籌款活動。類似英國的Child Poverty Action Group或澳洲的 Public Interest Advocacy Centre等的專門訴訟的非政
府組織,目前仍未在香港得到充分發展。目前,有條件的及按判決金額收費的協議被禁止。根據終審法院在Unruh v Seeberger [2007] 2 HKLRD 414; [2007] 2 HKC 609一案的裁決,包攬訴訟和維持的侵權行為
在香港仍然有效,但根據《基本法》第35條,「向法院提起訴訟」的例外規定,將允許一名人士獲得其他人提供資金以支持其訴訟,倘該名人士尋求訴
訟的權利會因其缺乏財政資源而被扼殺。

訟費命令
雖然訟費是法院的酌情決定事宜,但訴訟中的一般訟費令是,訟費須視乎訴訟結果而定。理由是訟費是判給勝訴的一方以作為補償,而並非向敗訴方施加以作為懲罰。

當公共利益方勝訴
倘公共利益方在訴訟中勝訴,他通常會根據《高等法院規則》第62令第28(2)條獲判給按訴訟各方對評基準的訟費。在Town Planning Board v Society for Protection of the Harbour Ltd (No 2) [2004] 2 HKLRD 95 一案中,法庭行使酌情決定權,根據第62令第28(3)條向獲判勝訴的公共利益訴訟人頒發更慷慨的以彌償為基準的訟費令。終審法院對於作出這樣的命令的解釋理由如下:

「事實上,開展程序以維護公眾利益,特別是保護公共資產,是香港的傳統核心要素(而非維護或執行一些私人權利或利益),這與酌情決定權的行使顯然相關。另一相關的事實是,該協會開展法律程序,可確保在遵循法紀方面所達致的公眾利益,並促使基本法律問題得到解決。同樣相關的是案件對公眾的明顯重要性(即保護海港),以及協會的資金來源有限,因為它們須依賴市民的捐款。」

法院指出,上述因素的存在,表明此案具有特殊和不尋常的特性,故有必要頒發彌償訟費令。我們期望,這一酌情決定權在具有價值的案件中可更寬泛地行使。正常的按訴訟各方對評基準確定的訟費,意指公共利益訴訟人在勝訴後,將要承擔大約三分之一的律師費,這可能仍是一個龐大的金額數目。

當公共利益方敗訴
法院不時宣告,對於以公共利益為理據而提出司法覆核的申請人,不會因他們敗訴而向其頒發訟費令。在基於公眾利益而應予偏離通常的訟費令時,有兩宗案件可供作比較,以察看法院如何確定公共利益。在Leung Kwok Hung v President of Legislative Council of HKSAR [2007] HKCU 738 (unreported, HCAL 87/2006)一案中,申請人就不允許一名立法會議員在委員會的審議階段中,提出對政府收入有影響的條例草案作出修訂的立法會規則之合憲性,提出司法覆核申請,但並不成功。在訟費判決中,法院並沒有頒發訟費令。夏正民法官認為,雖然申請人所提出的聲請並沒有成功,但它確是很具爭議性,而該法律程序足對解決一項重要的《基本法》解釋起相當作用。此外,申請人並非是基於私利而提起該訴訟,而是為了促進香港的憲制運作中的非常重要合法公共利益。因此,適當的命令應為不就訟費作出頒令。

相反,法院在Chu Hoi Dick v Secretary for Home Affairs (No 2) [2007] 4 HKC 428一案中,就民政事務局局長拒絕根據《古物及古蹟條例》(第53章)第3條宣告皇后碼頭為古蹟的決定而提出挑戰但不成功的申請人,拒絕向其頒發不須繳付訟費的命令。林文翰法官所頒下的,就尋求公共利益而值得偏離通常訟費令的原則為:

1. 訴訟人是適當地提起訴訟,以尋求法庭就一項具普遍公眾重要性的論點作出指引,故該訴訟的目的是為造福社會整體,因而有關的訴訟費用應該由公帑支付,作為良好公共行政的附隨費用;
2. 該項司法裁決有助於正確理解相關的法律;
3. 訴訟人並沒有從結果中取得私利。這一案件在判給公共利益訟費方面訂下了明確和有原則的做法。但在其應用方面,則須避免過度局限性的解釋。例如,「普遍的公眾重要性」應解釋為涵蓋對一個群體所產生的影響,哪怕它可能只是社會上的一個小群體;例如維護少數民族權利的訴訟—公共利益訴訟的最重要本質—而不是只涉及字面上的公眾整體事宜,因其可能僅限於一般的環境問題。

此外,申請人是否從結果中取得私利,這是一個程度上的問題。正如法庭在隨後的Democratic Party v Secretary for Justice [2007] HKCU 2140 (unreported, HCAL 84/2006)案件中承認,申請人若要就某一問題的爭辯具有陳述權,便必須在案中享有充分的利益,即是他必須藉尋求得益或防止損失而擁有一些私人利益。重要的,是公共利益在該司法覆核申請中具主導性而非只是附隨性質。

Chu Hoi Dick (No 2)案件中,法庭裁定不成功的申請人必須支付訟費給勝訴的一方。法庭指出,覆核的標的事項,即是當局不宣告將皇后碼頭列為法定古蹟的決定,如果是判申請人得直,這只會讓該
事宜發回給當局作重新考慮,但該古蹟是否不會被拆除,卻並沒有任何保證。法院要求該項被質疑的決定,須與具普遍公眾重要性的事宜之間具有「接近性」。

對於這一要求的是否符合,將取決於立法或政府政策所訂下的決策機制,以及申請人如何構建其法律議題。假如法庭裁定須將事宜發回當局作重新考慮,特別是在一個多層次的決策體系下,能符合要求的機會便將會較低。有人提出,如果被質疑的決定,是解決普遍公眾重要性問題的「重要步驟」,則儘管它並沒有直接的影響,也應符合該項要求。

Chan Noi Heung一案
隨後的判例法(Chan Noi Heung v The Chief Executive in Council [2009] 3 HKLRD 362),明確了偏離通常訟費令的理據要求。該項不成功的司法覆核申請,是關於政府應否在香港實施最低工資規定。在對訟費作出決定方面,法庭裁定該案件缺乏足夠理據以偏離通常的訟費令。法庭指出,為並無真正成功可能的公共利益訴訟提供資助並不符合公眾利益。這一「真正成功可能」驗證,與Po Fun Chan v Winnie Chung [2008] 1 HKLRD 319 [2007] 5 HKC 145一案所訂下的在法律程序的許可階段的上限驗證並不相同,因為它們是處於不同的階段被確定。

在平衡公共開支方面,偏離通常的訟費令應只限於涉及有價值的公共利益訴訟。然而,從向法院提起訴訟的角度來考慮,公共利益訴訟人應獲得更大的保障。公共利益訴訟人一旦通過了許可階段,他們便應該可以放心,因該宗訴訟確實有真正勝訴的可能,從而在法律程序上投入時間和資源。此外,按許可階段時的情況來考慮問題,以配合法庭對案情是非曲直的觀點,將可避免公共利益訴訟人在訴
訟終結時,須面對驚人訟費負擔的風險。

保護訟費令
或者,更平衡的方法是規定使用保護訟費令。保護訟費令可以在法律程序的任何階段授予申請人。這是一項其中一方如敗訴,可不須承擔另一方訟費的規定,又或是另一方的訟費上限被設定於一個確定數額的命令。保護訟費令的目的,是加強享有向法院提起訴訟的機會,確保公共利益訴訟各方在財政資源方面被置於平等的條件下。

在香港,司法管轄權的授予在Chan Wai Yip Albert v Secretary for Justice (unreported, HCAL 36/2005)一案中獲得承認。在英國,上訴法院在R (on the application of Corner House Research) v Secretary of State for Trade and Industry [2005] 4 All ER 1一案中,設下了授予保護訟費令的詳細準則:

「(i) 所提出的議題具普遍的公眾重要性;
(ii) 為符合公眾利益,該些問題應該得到解決;
(iii) 申請人在案件的結果方面並不涉及私人利益;
(iv) 在考慮到申請人及答辯人的財務資源,以及可能會涉及的訟費金額後,顯示頒發有關命令是公平和公正的;及
(v) 如果法庭沒有頒發該命令,申請人可能會中止有關的法律程序,而他提起該法律程序是屬於合理的行事。」

在英國,為公共利益訴訟而提供的保護訟費令原來是只有在例外的情況下才會授予,但該例外性後來在R (on the application of Compton) v Wiltshire Primary Care Trust (Compton) [2008] EWCA Civ 749 and R (on the application of Buglife: The Invertebrate Conservation Trust) v Thurrock Thames Gateway Development Corp [2008] EWCA Civ 1209案件中獲得了放寬。為了制衡作為被告人的政府當局之利益和防止過度耗費,假如申請人獲得了勝訴,法院可設定所判給訟費的上限。

對於保障不符合資格申請法律援助的非政府組織和個別公共利益訴訟人,使其在公共利益訴訟不成功時,免於面對不確定的訟費承擔風險,以公帑支付訟費,可以說是能夠有助促進向法院提起訴訟、訴訟條件的均等,以及對公法的闡明(這是在良好的行政上非常重要的)。然而,我們應當以謹慎的態度來處理保護訟費令的授予,並關注效率的問題,以防止附屬訴訟的擴大。

結論

香港要發展一個更為全面的公共利益訴訟資助機制,將取決於對上述四個資金來源的加強。這是為在香港尋求真正公共利益,而透過司法覆核來加強向法院提起訴訟的第一步。

 

Karen Kong
Research Assistant Professor
Faculty of Law
The University of Hong Kong


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