Professional judgements

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 April, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 April, 1996, 12:00am


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Court reporters know a good thing when they see one, so I am sure there is some intricate legal point coming up that will explain why all the newspapers are so fascinated by the story of a 'hostess' who was raped by one of her customers.

I do not propose to linger over the details, but it appeared from the prosecutor's opening speech that this was not one of those cases in which a post-coital dispute had arisen over what had been offered for how much. It was more in the line of traditional robbery with violence.

The judge nevertheless thought it necessary to begin with the time-honoured reminder that 'this is not a court of morals' and warned the jury that they should not be influenced by their opinions of the victim's profession.

Now judges are expected to err on the safe side and I do not criticise the judge in any way for going through this traditional procedure. I do wonder, though, if this sort of thing is really still needed by the average juror.

I have always been fascinated by that phrase about a 'court of morals' because I am sure the average lay person hearing it has no idea what a court of morals might be.

It is as if the judge said: 'This is not the Court of Common Pleas.' One would agree, of course, but without being quite sure what the implication was.

Is there some historic example of a court of morals lurking behind the phrase? I suppose it might be a reference to the Church courts and their long-running, if completely theoretical, power to punish adulterers. If so, the reference is a rather obscure one for most of us.

I wonder if judges could perhaps think of a less medieval way of putting the point.

Anyway, this is beside the main question, which is whether a Hong Kong jury would now still have difficulty in treating a woman fairly if they knew she was a prostitute.

Clearly, there are some circumstances in which the point would be relevant. If a member of the oldest profession turned up in Mike Tyson's hotel room at three in the morning we would have some difficulty in believing that she really expected to be shown his etchings.

Outside the area of ambiguous dates, though, I wonder if it still makes a difference.

It certainly does in some places. The letters column of Newsweek had several angry offerings last week from American readers who thought it was unacceptable to say anything nice about Camilla Parker Bowles because she had been carrying on with a married man. Clearly carrying on with several married men would be even worse.

I take it therefore that an American court would still have some difficulty in disregarding the profession of a woman who laid for a living, a suspicion reinforced by the rather harsh treatment accorded to Heidi Fleiss.

Having been away for so long I am not sure how things go in Britain these days. There certainly used to be a suspicion that ladies of the night were more generally depraved and less dependable.

The rise of women's liberation produced an interesting argument between those who felt that prostitution must be wrong because men enjoyed it, and those who felt that it must be right because it was a profession in which women excelled.

It is difficult to gauge Hong Kong attitudes in this matter because the matter is not one that can be raised in polite conversation.

The case of Chim Pui-chung is interesting.

Chim achieved instant notoriety by remarking, possibly not entirely seriously, that all women were 'chickens'.

This did not go down too well, but he survived.

In some countries, Chim would have been publicly Bobbitted by a horde of vengeful harpies for saying such a thing.

The gradual redevelopment of Lockhart Road is marked by occasional claims that the red light has finally been extinguished and Suzie Wong is no longer in residence. But this sordid part of Hong Kong's past does not seem to be a cause of any great embarrassment.

So it seems that prostitution, though not approved, is regarded as a part of life, a fate which may overtake the unfortunate or the greedy, a seedy variation, perhaps, on the more traditional hunt for a rich husband.

It seems quite possible, in fact, that local juries do not need to be warned that they should not be influenced by the fact that the alleged victim is a professional lady.

Or if they do, perhaps similar warnings should be supplied when the victims come from other professions not known for public-spiritedness and popularity - landlords, building sub-contractors, used-car dealers, politicians. Journalists?