Equal Opportunities Commission

Our city's law against racism remains flawed

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 April, 2010, 12:00am

The Hospital Authority has always maintained there was no negligence or discrimination in the treatment of solicitor Harrinder Veriah, who died following admission to Ruttonjee Hospital after an epileptic seizure in 2000. This week her widower, author Martin Jacques, accepted the authority's offer of a 'substantial' sum in an out-of-court settlement, shortly before a hearing was to begin of a lawsuit over these claims.

As a result, they will not now be tested in open court. But the offer finally brings a measure of closure and, at least in the minds of Jacques and his son Ravi, justice for Veriah. The case will be remembered for Jacques' account of the feelings expressed by his wife about her treatment - 'I am at the bottom of the pile ... I am the only Indian here'. A public outcry and discussion about racism that followed are credited with speeding the eventual passage of the city's anti-racism law. That the settlement does not include admission of any blame cannot change that.

The law is far from perfect. It only outlaws language discrimination because lawmakers refused to go along with an exemption. Ironically, human rights activists say this has led to one of the earliest tangible benefits - a big improvement in the provision of translation services in hospitals. But it is still flawed by weak enforcement and too many exemptions from effective coverage, including the police and the bureaucracy. The latter has been issued with guidelines on promoting racial equality in health, education, employment and major community services. But it cannot be right for a government to enact an anti-racist law and exempt itself in this way. It should still consider the view of the Equal Opportunities Commission that it should at least acknowledge a duty in law to promote equality, and allow the commission to monitor its performance, including remedies for any unfair effects of its policies. That would go some way to meeting concerns about exposure to litigation over perceived discrimination in its policies or actions. Meanwhile, Veriah's case is a reminder that the credibility of the law depends heavily on public education and the EOC's watchdog role.