A pair of glasses may not sound like a lot to ask for, but for Ms Tsui*, it literally changes the way she a sees the world.
Ms Tsui is a recipient of Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) Scheme administered by the Social Welfare Department. This is a crucial social safety net for citizens who cannot support themselves financially, but it is a complicated system with the standard allowance payment covering only the most basic of needs. Therefore, there are additional payments that you can apply for specific things, like “long-term supplement”, “community living supplement”, “residential care supplement”, “single parent supplement” and so on.
When Ms Tsui came to us, she told us about her specific eye problem which requires some specially calibrated spectacles, and these need a replacement every few years. As you can imagine, these glasses are very important to her daily life, and without which she has can’t read or move around much. The replacement cost of a pair, however, is almost as much as her entire monthly expenses. In the past, she was able to claim for the replacement cost of her special glasses previously as a discretionary “special grant” under the CSSA scheme.
The replacement cost of a pair, however, is almost as much as her entire monthly expenses.
But when she tried to apply again this year, the CSSA officer told her that subsidy would not be issued unless she produces certification from an optometrist or medical doctor, and that they were too lenient to her in the past. While the request for a medical certificate sounds reasonable, the only issue is that no one could provide Ms Tsui with the necessary medical certificate.
Why? Because at the medical clinic, the doctors declined to provide a medical certificate for this condition as they were not specialists in ophthalmology, and she was sent away to look for optometrist on the streets. But at the optometrists, she was told that they simply do not provide certification or they could not certify to the effect that there is an “absolute medical need” for such glasses. After all, she could cope (even if uncomfortable and limited) with normal glasses. They said “one can always try to see through a less-than-ideal glasses”. In short, our client was stuck and didn’t know what to do.
Then her SoCO social work brought Ms Tsui to us at our Community Legal Clinic. This is the first generalist community legal centre in Hong Kong, where we deal with all kinds of grassroots legal issues for those in need, but can’t afford private legal assistance or who are not eligible for Legal Aid.
With the assistance of Gon Yeung, one of our brilliant volunteer lawyers with knowledge and experience in this area, we advised Ms Tsui of her the legal position, the potential grounds of objection, and other relevant options and considerations including a legal challenge. But not every case needs to go straight to serving papers on a government department in a high-profile judicial review case. What our lawyer did was to provide Ms Tsui with an assurance that there were alternatives after being outright refused, and she could try some other tactics before turning to a judicial review. Now, armed with this knowledge we were able to help Ms Tsui stand firm and to go back to the department and continue her fight. She prevailed in the end and got her subsidy. Justice was served!
Not every case needs to go to court for a fair and just outcome. Timely legal assistance can change the world for many who are marginalised and disadvantaged stand firm, because exercising their rights is a means to being self-sufficient, empowerment and more opportunities. The Centre for Pro Bono needs your help so that we can do more to assist people like Ms Tsui.
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