Tim Hamlett's Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 January, 2008, 12:00am

A veteran journalist and Baptist University academic, Tim looks at the issues facing the city. E-mail him at hamlett@hkbu.edu.hk

The man who said the law was an ass was a comfortable member of the middle class. If I remember correctly, the phrase is attributed to a Dickens character who had just lost a civil case. Those who dwell in humbler circumstances do not find that the law is an ass. They find that it is a tiger likely at any time to maul their lives. They are engulfed by the inexorable machinery of justice, and transported to a strange world where the normal laws of language and logic do not apply. The law is merciless, vengeful and punitive.

If on the other hand you do not live in humbler circumstances, but in more palatial ones, then the law is still not an ass. It is a pussycat, readily placated by the blandishments of an expensive lawyer. If you have already banked your first million you are very unlikely to see the inside of a Hong Kong prison. The intricate relationship between wealth and justice comes to mind following the case of Peter Lam Kin-ngok, whose prosecution for speeding has opened up an entertaining conundrum over use of speed guns.

Mr Lam was clocked by the traffic police at 114km/h. This is not in itself an outrageous speed. But the speed limit at the relevant spot happens to be 50km/h, so Mr Lam was in some difficulty. If you are caught in a state of such excess speed, you usually lose your licence. My experience of speeding allegations is that a missive from the traffic police drops into your letterbox two or three weeks after the alleged offence and usually refers to road names you have never heard of. Having no precise memory of the incident, you plead guilty. A court appearance is likely to add to the expense and unlikely to change the outcome.

A lawyer would cost more than the fine. There is no legal aid. Still, faced with the possible loss of a driver's licence many drivers proceed to Plan B, which is to insist on a formal trial and have a lawyer try to establish reasonable doubt.

And sometimes they are lucky. I recall a member of my family back in the UK who managed to obscure the reality of a moment of exuberance on the Kingston bypass by grilling the police witnesses at great and confusing length on the question of how far apart the lamp posts were. This sort of thing is of course perfectly legal and proper.

In Mr Lam's case his legal team elicited the fact that the officer in charge of the speed gun had not followed the procedure stipulated by the maker for calibrating it. The prosecutors then had an attack of cold feet and, I suppose after some private interactions that in cruder jurisdictions would be called plea bargaining, decided to proceed on the basis that Mr Lam had been doing no more than 79km/h. Mr Lam admitted this offence, incurring three penalty points and a fine of HK$450.

Readers tempted to send money at this point should bear in mind that when Mr Lam is not driving past 50km/h signs at 79km/h, he works as the chairman of Lai Sun Development. This case has left a mess. Looking at the mess, I suspect the police would rather the prosecution had proceeded on the original basis, whether successfully or not, because other people who were shot with this particular speed gun have already paid up. So an obvious question arises. The official answer, so far, is that nine people in the 'same day, same gun' category can, if they request it, have their cases 'reviewed'. I suppose this is a careful legal way of saying they will probably get their money back. We have not been told what will happen to the 60 people who have already made hopeful contact with slightly less identical cases.

Deputy police commissioner Peter Yam Tat-wing was quoted on Monday as saying the speed guns in use were accurate, even if the police did not in all respects follow the maker's instructions. This might have been a good point to make in court. He also said the public should not be under the illusion that the devices might be inaccurate based on a legal technicality. This is an unfortunate choice of words. Legal technicalities have nothing to do with it. If drivers are to be convicted on the evidence of a gadget, then that gadget should be used in a way that inspires confidence. Normally that means following the maker's instructions. Mr Lam was perfectly entitled to insist on this and has done us all a service by drawing the matter to public attention.

It seems the police in New Territories South were perfectly capable of reading the instructions on the box. They came up with a variation 'for the sake of convenience'. This has nothing to do with legal technicalities; actually it looks rather like laziness. The only legal point involved is the requirement that people accused of crimes should be acquitted unless the offence is proved beyond reasonable doubt. And that is not a technicality; it is a fundamental principle.