Anger over costly 12-year legal battle

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 May, 2011, 12:00am


Lee Kok-lam came to work in Hong Kong from Singapore in 1997 with a new university degree, a job and high hopes.

Today he is unemployed, broke and angry with the Hong Kong legal system that he says allowed a legal dispute with his former employer to drag on for 12 years, costing his family HK$3 million and almost costing the lives of his wife and children, before it was finally settled out of court.

The woes of Lee, a project development manager, began two years after his arrival when his boss, former solicitor David Ho Yuk-wah, suspected he was diverting business away from the company, Asia-Pac Infrastructure Development, which sued him for breach of fiduciary duty and took out an injunction freezing his assets.

When it finally came to court on January 5 this year, the plaintiff offered to settle after 10 days of hearings during which the claim was steadily reduced, says Lee, who was sued along with four co-defendants.

Halfway through that time Lee, 39, had to rush back to Singapore when his wife tried to commit suicide along with their sons, aged six and eight.

But having come this far, he still wishes the case had gone to a full trial.

'I believe in justice. I never wanted to run away,' Lee, 39, said. But the message he got from his experience in Hong Kong's legal system is 'if you don't have the means, don't come.'

Lee has been unemployed for a decade, afraid to seek work with the court action hanging over his head. He found a new job after leaving Ho's company, but had to leave after the employer learned of the injunction.

'Over the first 10 days of the hearing, it was clear that the plaintiff didn't have a case,' Lee said. 'The company initially claimed for profits, but as the case developed, their claim was reduced to expenses only,' he said. 'On day two of the hearing, David Ho said that if I had gone to him to apologise, he would have let me go.'

Court documents show that Ho established the company in 1996 to fund and negotiate joint-venture projects on the mainland, but did not have any interest left in it by the time the hearing started in January.

On January 27, Mr Justice William Stone signed off on a settlement under which one of the co-defendants would pay the plaintiff a sum of money and the plaintiff would withdraw the claim against them all. The injunction against Lee was discharged.

Noting the length of time the case had dragged on, Stone said various High Court masters had input at different stages, 'so that there was not one [single] judicial mind at work in determining how this case was to be managed and to get to trial'.

Lee sought to appeal against the order on the grounds that Stone was biased and had been pressured by the plaintiff and co-defendants to allow the settlement.

In refusing leave to appeal on April 8, acting Chief Judge Mr Justice Robert Tang Ching said: 'Having gone into the history of the proceedings, I cannot say that the learned judge was not entitled to say that the case was ripe for settlement.'

Lee could hardly hide his frustration when he spoke of the delays.

'Every two to three years, the plaintiff changed lawyers around the time a hearing was supposed to be held,' Lee said. 'Every time it was dragged on, money was spent on our side, too.'

'My lawyer said it was their tactic ... One case can feed one generation of their kids.' he said. He was told that a senior counsel involved in the case could charge more than HK$200,000 a day. Lee's legal fees were paid out of his sister's retirement fund.

Daniel Wong Kwok-tung, a lawyer experienced in civil cases, said 12 years was a long time 'but the judiciary cannot be blamed for it'.

Before the justice reform came into effect in April 2009, parties in civil cases decided how they wanted to progress with the case, he said. The reform set out a clearer timetable, making cases more cost-efficient.