Need for consistency
Magistrate Peter White's adamant refusal to reverse his earlier decision to discharge five young shoplifters was a clear - if unorthodox - signal to the Department of Justice that there is considerable unease in the legal profession over some of its recent rulings.
Mr White's view that it would have been unfair to punish the five unemployed men is not without justification, even if it did send an unfortunate message to the public. Shoplifting is a serious offence and requires an appropriate punishment. But there has to be consistency in sentencing and that is what the magistrate was aiming for.
Last year the department made headline news by deciding not to prosecute high-profile defendants involved in other cases. Godfrey Nguyen Gia-huy, son of Mr Justice Peter Nguyen, was caught in possession of two Ecstasy tablets; Assistant Director of Housing Poon Kai-tik was arrested for stealing a computer magazine and assaulting a shop assistant.
Those decisions prompted many to ask about the criteria that the Department of Justice applies before bringing a case to court. Director of Public Prosecutions Grenville Cross wrote an article in this paper outlining the reasons for not charging Mr Nguyen. But it seems he still has to convince some colleagues in the courts. When a magistrate feels the system lacks coherence, it is hardly surprising if the public also harbours concerns about its impartiality. Sensitivity about equality under the law was raised in 1998 following the decision not to prosecute Sally Aw Sian, former proprietor of the Sing Tao Group, over an alleged role in falsifying circulation figures of the Hongkong Standard. Confidence in the integrity of the judicial process was severely shaken. Hence the heightened vigilance over any case were justice seems to be askew.