A case that should never have gone to court

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 May, 2010, 12:00am

The government's hygiene inspectors perform a valuable service in striving to keep our city clean and healthy. But occasionally, overzealous policing by some officers has led to accusations of unfairness and bullying against licensed hawkers and ordinary citizens alike.

The needless prosecution of ice cream vendor Chu Chung-wah is a case in point. Chu was originally charged with obstructing a pedestrian area at the Tsim Sha Tsui Star Ferry pier on December 19, but the charge was dropped after the prosecution offered no evidence. Even so, Magistrate Jason Wan Siu-ming had to hand down a symbolic HK$100 fine after Chu pleaded guilty to a charge of selling unauthorised items, that is, candy sticks which were not allowed under his hawker licence. However, the magistrate roundly criticised the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department and the prosecution for proceeding with such a minor offence. He also praised Chu for his hard work and offered to buy ice cream from him on a hot day. Common sense has, at last, prevailed, though the case should never have reached the court in the first place.

Chu was among 61 successful applicants for ice cream hawker licences that were issued last year, the first time since 1993. It is a tough job. Chu earns only about HK$6,000 a month, but his service offers joy to children and relief to people from the heat. He should be encouraged, not harassed.

If something good has come out of the case, it is that ice cream hawkers and the department's officers have reached a better understanding. As a result, there have been fewer confrontations. Overzealous inspectors sometimes enforce the rules without due regard to circumstances. This could lead to farcical situations, as in the case of Lau Shiu-fun, a housewife who was fined for littering in 2005 after dropping her house key. She went to court and won.

Our streets and public spaces are generally clean, largely thanks to department cleaners and inspectors. But some need to be reminded that while dedication to duty is admirable, it needs to be tempered with sensitivity, common sense and compassion.