Urn firm that claims it's a shrine loses appeal

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 June, 2012, 12:00am


The operator of a human ash repository has once more lost a linguistic argument that its facility is a shrine not a columbarium and therefore not subject to planning rules.

Throwing out the contention of The Shrine in Yuen Long, the Court of Appeal also ordered it to pay the government's costs in opposing the case.

Judges who made the ruling after hearing arguments for 20 minutes will give their written reasons later.

The second legal defeat in eight months for the operator, listed company Hong Kong Life Group, brought a call from activists for the government to step in and close the facility immediately. But it remained uncertain whether the firm would take its case to the Court of Final Appeal.

The company had argued that a shrine was different from a columbarium in that it involved an element of worship, although the functions overlapped because a shrine could also contain human ashes.

The group bought a group of buildings - some of them historical - in San Wai village and converted one for ash storage with 1,560 niches, about 200 of which have been sold and 14 occupied.

After the Planning Department took enforcement action it launched a judicial review saying that under current land use zoning, a shrine for worshipping is always a permissible use of village buildings, and does not require planning permission.

In the Court of First Instance last October, Mr Justice Johnson Lam Man-hon ruled that The Shrine was in fact an illegal columbarium.

Yesterday Philip Dykes SC, for the operator, said the Planning Department must permit the running of a shrine although he agreed that permission was required before operating a columbarium.

The convenor of a concern group on illegal columbariums, Eddie Tse Sai-kit, called on the government to enforce the law immediately.

'It has been dragging on for eight months and there is no more excuse to delay the enforcement,' he said.

Tse accused The Shrine of using legal proceedings to buy time to keep running the columbarium as niche owners had been seen going in and out during grave-sweeping seasons.

The Planning Department, which enforces the Town Planning Ordinance, welcomed the ruling.