Legal representation for lower ranks moves closer
Fanny W. Y. Fung
A law change to allow disciplined services staff legal representation in disciplinary hearings will be presented to legislators for debate by July.
The move follows a Court of Final Appeal ruling in March last year that a rule barring police officers from hiring lawyers to represent them at disciplinary proceedings was unconstitutional. The ruling resulted in the reinstatement of Constable Lam Siu-po, who had been forced to retire in 2002 after an internal hearing convicted him of misconduct.
Lam's victory has triggered more than 50 applications for appeals by former police officers seeking to overturn disciplinary action taken against them.
At present, all civilian-grade civil servants and disciplined services staff of superintendent grade or above are allowed to hire lawyers to represent them at internal hearings, but officers of lower ranks do not enjoy that right.
'We are working with the disciplined services departments on the related legislative amendments required,' a spokeswoman for the Civil Service Bureau said. 'After making such amendments, all disciplined services will on the whole be consistent in respect of allowing an officer to have legal representation in disciplinary hearings.'
Clauses in laws governing the police, Government Flying Service and the fire service, correctional, customs and excise, and immigration departments, are being examined.
Staff unions gave a cautious welcome to the proposed legislative amendment. 'We are still waiting to see how it is going to be done,' said Tony Liu Kit-ming, chairman of the Police Inspectors' Association. 'The right to legal representation is a must. We don't have to thank the government for granting us this right. It was only forced to amend the legislation after the Lam Siu-po case.'
He said other aspects of disciplinary procedure should also be unified.
'Take this hypothetical scenario: if a police superintendent, an inspector, a constable and an auxiliary policeman are caught playing mahjong together during office hours, under present regulations, each will face a different disciplinary procedure. This doesn't make sense at all.'
Ngai Sik-shui, who represents staff on the Disciplined Services Consultative Council, welcomed the fact that officers would be given the choice but said he hoped officers would exercise it very carefully so internal hearings would not be turned into court trials.