Bailiffs' 'honest mistakes' immunity

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 April, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 April, 1998, 12:00am

Bailiffs who seize and sell off goods belonging to innocent people cannot be sued for damages so long as their actions are 'an honest mistake', a judge ruled yesterday.

Mr Justice Azizul Suffiad ruled victims could pursue legal action against the court officials only if they had acted insolently or oppressively.

Claims might also be made if there was 'a real or substantial grievance', the judge said.

He rejected businessman James Fu Lok-man's claim for damages from the Chief Bailiff of the High Court.

Mr Fu claimed his manufacturing firm, Lokie Leatherware, crashed because $560,000 worth of jackets were wrongfully seized.

His barrister Simon Chiu had told the judge there needed to be a shake-up of the procedures used by bailiffs.

But Mr Justice Suffiad said the bailiffs were protected from legal action under the common law by the provision of a 'unique defence'.

This enables them to carry out their duties without fear of unwittingly laying themselves open to a damages claim.

The Court of First Instance judge said bailiffs were often in a position where they seized goods in accordance with a court order against a debtor only to find they were claimed by a third party.

He said it was not easy to do justice to both an innocent person whose goods had been seized and a bailiff executing a judicial process.

Mr Fu's leather jackets were seized from a Tsim Sha Tsui shop in December 1995.

He said the jackets were auctioned at a fraction of their true value, causing his business to collapse and his employees to lose their jobs.

But the judge noted Mr Fu had turned down an opportunity to take back the goods in January 1996.