Widen the net through civil courts: Zervos
Hong Kong authorities could seize more ill-gotten millions from criminals if prosecutors were able to pursue them through the civil - not just the criminal - courts, according to the city's top prosecutor.
Director of Public Prosecutions Kevin Zervos SC says the present anti-money-laundering laws, which require a criminal conviction before the proceeds of crime can be seized - often after years of legal wrangling - means often only 'slow and stupid' criminals are caught, leaving the sharp operators in the clear.
If laws were expanded to allow civil forfeiture, the standard of proof would be on a balance of probabilities, which is lower than the criminal standard of beyond reasonable doubt.
Zervos said it would allow a wider, more effective net to catch criminals who launder dirty money in Hong Kong. 'It would be quicker, broader and easier,' he said.
'Money moves quickly, so we need to move quickly in response, to firstly restrain the proceeds of crime and then to eventually confiscate them. The people that tend to get caught are the slow and the stupid. We've got to make sure that we're in a position where we can be effective in dealing with the sharp operator. We need the appropriate powers, measures and regime in place to do that.'
Nevertheless, Zervos, who has prosecuted hundreds of money laundering cases over the past 20 years, said Hong Kong was doing well given the restrictions of the conviction-based system.
Last year, there were 109 money laundering cases, with 864 charges laid and a success rate of 86 per cent.
This year, there have been 48 cases with 486 charges laid and a success rate of 74 per cent.
'So we've got a very good, significant number of cases and a good success rate,' Zervos said. 'It's not because we're behind or we're not being effective but we can be more innovative, creative and move forward with an easier regime to deal with restraint and confiscation.
'With a civil-based forfeiture, as has been shown elsewhere in the world, it just brings about greater efficiency and effectiveness.'
In 2002, Australia, Britain and Canada all introduced civil-based forfeiture, while similar systems have been in place in the United States since the 1970s, in Ireland since '96 and South Africa since '98.
Zervos said restraining and confiscating the proceeds of crime was essential for tackling crime overall.
'First, it disgorges the illicit profits from the criminals and takes the incentive out of crime,' he said.
'Secondly, it prevents criminals from using the profits to further develop and expand their criminal enterprise. You're cutting a criminal syndicate at its knees.'
In recent years, illegal gambling and bookmaking had emerged as key trends, he said, with one significant case involving betting on Mark Six numbers by gamblers on the mainland and in Taiwan.
The case, which was brought to court in 2009, was concluded this year with prosecutors seizing a record HK$1.5 billion from a Taiwanese man at the centre of the scam.
Zervos said that his push for reform was not a matter of catching up, but rather to evolve the city's continuing fight against crime, and that the Joint Financial Intelligence Unit, which spearheads the government's fight against money laundering, had been 'progressive and innovative'.
Amount involved, in HK dollars, in the laundering case against Carson Yeung Ka-sing, owner of English soccer club Birmingham City