Top court quashes tampering convictions

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 June, 2010, 12:00am

A six-year-long case of alleged witness tampering drew to a close yesterday when the Court of Final Appeal dismissed all allegations against the three accused - including a top lawyer and a barrister.

The five judges ruled unanimously in favour of lawyer Andrew Lam Ping-cheung, barrister Kevin Egan and Mandy Chui Man-si, saying not only were there 'critical evidential deficiencies', but the lower courts' rulings also 'lack logical and factual basis'.

The top court also ruled out a retrial.

The case stemmed from an alleged conspiracy between Egan, Lam, Chui and her lover Derek Wong Chong-kwong, former chairman of Semtech International Holdings, to use the media and the courts to pressure the Independent Commission Against Corruption into releasing Wong's secretary, Becky Wong Pui-see. Prosecutors had said their aim was to stop Becky Wong - who later joined the ICAC's witness protection programme - giving evidence against her boss in a market manipulation case.

Lam and Chui were convicted of a count of conspiring to pervert the course of justice at the original trial.

Lam appealed against his conviction last year, but the Court of Appeal upheld the District Court's ruling and increased his sentence from four years to six. In dismissing Lam's appeal, Mr Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li said Lam knew the witness was about to testify against his client Wong and thus orchestrated the habeas corpus application in an attempt to gain access to her, despite knowing she was not really in detention.

But permanent Court of Final Appeal judge, Mr Justice Roberto Ribeiro, said yesterday that he saw neither a logical or factual basis for the purported inference, especially when the conspiracy was allegedly made after a two-hour meeting where Lam met Wong and Chui for the first time.

'Why should perfect strangers, consulting a solicitor for the first time, take the risk of proposing what was an obviously unlawful scheme? And why would Lam agree to a criminal scheme, putting himself and his professional career at risk at the request of mere strangers?

'In the absence of actual knowledge, a solicitor [or barrister] is bound to adopt an agnostic approach towards the client's instructions in carrying out his professional duties since it is not his business to judge their truth of falsity,' Ribeiro said.

Ribeiro also challenged the credibility of law firm office manager Aaron Nattrass, who testified against Lam.

The judge said that some of Nattrass' evidence was later found to be factually incorrect and that he gave contradictory answers regarding his friendship with Lam.

'This is one of the rare cases where the Court of Appeal should have rejected the trial judge's findings on credibility,' Ribeiro said.

The judge said Nattrass' record of criminal complaints against various officials and colleagues, extravagant claims about himself, and the fact that he was a self-appointed ICAC informant all sparked serious concerns over his reliability.

Ribeiro's ruling was supported by the other four judges.

Chui's conviction of attempted perjury was also quashed. The judges believed that some of the words she used in a telephone conversation with the witness were incorrectly translated into English.

The Court of Final Appeal also rejected an application to reinstate convictions on two charges against Egan, accusing him of attempting to disclose information about the identity of a protected witness to a South China Morning Post reporter. These convictions had earlier been quashed by the Court of Appeal.

Mr Justice Murray Gleeson said there were problems with the way in which the trial judge had analysed the evidence against Egan and there was a failure by that judge to give adequate reasons for convicting him.

The court said Becky Wong was not on the witness protection programme at the time when Egan's conversation with the reporter took place.

The other judges hearing the appeal were Mr Justice Patrick Chan Siu-oi, Mr Justice Kemal Bokhary and Mr Justice Henry Litton.