Welfare cheat's sentence too soft, court told

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 April, 2006, 12:00am

The Justice Department says a suspended jail term for welfare fraud was too lenient on Leung Wai-kei, who survived the 2004 tsunami, and wants her to be jailed immediately for one year.

In a review application of the sentencing, the department said Leung, 28, 'showed no remorse' before conviction.

The eight-month jail term, suspended for two years, was not sufficiently harsh given her 'intentional and continuous deception' of welfare officers. The leniency could project a wrong message to the public, senior government prosecutor Jackson Poon Chin-ping told the Tuen Mun Court.

'The defendant's action is unfair to the community and the taxpayer,' said Mr Poon said. 'The suspended sentence will project a wrong message to society - those who cheat social welfare don't need to be jailed.'

When Mr Poon argued Leung did not deserve a suspended jail term because she had made no special contribution to society, her husband, Ko Chung-keung, who was in the courtroom, shouted: 'Do you know that she has saved four lives in the water?'

He was removed by his wife's lawyer, and the magistrate warned he would be arrested if he continued to misbehave.

Leung was convicted last month of 11 charges of welfare fraud, after it was found she dishonestly pocketed $2,475 in single-parent benefits from March to December 2004.

But the defence argued the department, in seeking a review, was caving in to public pressure. 'The real reason is because of the reaction by some people in society, who have formed their own verdict based on the piecemeal information they grasp. They did not sit through the trial and so do not have a comprehensive conclusion,' said defence counsel Chan Siu-ming.

In his ruling last month, Deputy Magistrate Raymond Wong Kwok-fai said the case was 'radically different' from other welfare deceptions. Mr Wong said she received just over $9,000 a month in assistance before claiming her husband went missing on July 2003.

'Leung and her two daughters were eligible for CSSA [welfare] in 2002 - long before she claimed the disappearance of her husband. The only difference between the monthly amounts she received in 2002 and 2004 was $225, which comes from the single-parent allowance,' he said at the time.

But the prosecutor disagreed and suggested that the pair had pocketed a total of $94,362 between March and December 2004. He said they should not have received any assistance because welfare policy states an able parent must join the Support for Self-Reliance Scheme, which requires recipients to attend job counselling sessions, which they did not.

Investigations showed she visited Thailand, Taiwan and the mainland with her 'missing' husband nine times, all funded by Mr Ko. Her case came to light after news reports of her ordeal adrift at sea off Phuket after the Boxing Day tsunami struck. Mr Wong reserved his ruling until May 8.