Doubt over promise to curb powers of police

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 June, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 June, 1997, 12:00am

Long-awaited curbs on police powers to stop, search and detain people have been promised within three years, but doubts linger over whether the future administration will support them.

With only 10 days to go to the handover, the Government announced yesterday a three-year target date for introducing definitions on when police can stop and search suspects and how long people can be detained without charge, among other things.

It also announced that 13 measures had been adopted under existing laws, including informing people when and why they were under arrest, and bringing detainees to court as soon as practicable.

The proposals were announced without a target date last October in response to a 1992 Law Reform Commission report on arrest. Police objected vigorously at the time to reductions in their powers.

Provisional legislator and Law Reform Commission member Kennedy Wong Ying-ho last night welcomed the proposals and expected them to be supported by his colleagues, although many of the laws are likely to be handled by their successors.

'We are moving closer and closer to a more democratic society,' said Mr Wong.

'The commission and the Government spent a lot of time reviewing the existing procedures and laws, and I think it's a great step forward,' he added.

But Democratic Party legislator James To Kun-sun was less optimistic about the future of the proposals.

The provisional legislature had already supported measures to restrict liberties, he said.

'I am not very optimistic for the future.' Mr To and Human Rights Monitor director Law Yuk-kai were suspicious that the announcement was timed just as Mr To is to propose an amendment to a bill on the Independent Police Complaints Council on Monday.

He wants the council to have the right to re-investigate reports from the Complaints Against Police Office and worries that the Government will argue this is unnecessary because the latest proposals provide a sufficient check.

But a Security Branch spokesman dismissed any significance in the timing, saying it was part of an 'on-going effort' to improve the criminal justice system.

Professor Raymond Wacks, who sat on the Law Reform Commission sub-committee that drafted the original report on arrest, said the changes were needed regardless of whether there was a British or Chinese sovereign.

'I think the issues are going to remain because we have a Common Law system in place which doesn't provide adequate definition and clarity on things like stop and search or detention,' he said.

'Of course there's a very strong chance that the future Special Administrative Region government would be most willing to leave things as they are.'