Criminal law may lend teeth to civil rulings

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 July, 2008, 12:00am

Justice would seem to have been done when the Labour Tribunal makes a ruling. The reality can sometimes be otherwise, as workers can attest when they are unable to get their promised awards because of unscrupulous bosses. A changed company name, an employer who claims an inability to pay up when the means are clearly there, or an outright refusal to comply get in the way of the law. The truth is that the judgment can sometimes be only the first stage of what could turn out to be a long and tortuous process that may or may not bear fruit.

Labour matters are not the only ones subject to such a situation. Any civil case is open to the same difficulties. Civil matters are not criminal ones; they are bound by laws, but do not have the same enforcement mechanisms to make them stick.

The government has recognised this in drawing up a Legislative Council paper that was discussed by lawmakers yesterday. It aims to 'make wilful non-compliance with the Labour Tribunal award an offence'. Taking the issue a step further, authorities have suggested that the directors of a company should be held criminally liable if they ignore the tribunal's rulings.

The idea deserves backing, although thought needs to be given to how the compensatory mechanism would work. Penalties have to be carefully considered. Some employers may genuinely not have the means to comply with rulings. It would be wrong to make them criminals in such circumstances.

In taking on the matter, authorities have raised an equally important issue: the enforcement of civil judgments in general. In a number of such cases, having rulings complied with can be a long, arduous, costly and time-consuming process. Bailiffs are generally called in when unpaid money is involved. This does not guarantee a full return; sometimes, only a percentage will be recovered.

A more effective means of ensuring compliance with civil judgments needs to be found. Authorities are heading in the right direction with regard to the rights of workers; a solution would seem to lie in criminal law. They would do well to widen the scope of their discussion to include other civil rulings.