One bite, two dogs, three court dates and several red faces

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 September, 2011, 12:00am


Woof Woof has finally been vindicated after an almost year-long, tortuous journey through the labyrinth of Hong Kong's mind-boggling bureaucracy.

Readers with long memories might recall that I first wrote about the Woof Woof saga last December. Names then, as now, were changed to protect the innocent and the hapless, which include far too many public officials only 'doing their job'.

To briefly recap: Woof Woof bit Dopey, the neighbour's dog. Dopey's owner responded by calling in the police who arrived in impressive numbers but quickly realised that this was a matter for the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, which plunged into the case with considerable vigour, photographing the scene of the alleged crime, conducting exhaustive interviews and finally launching prosecutions against both parties for failing to keep a large dog under control in a public place. That place being the private land outside the front door of Woof Woof's hapless owner.

Taxpayers' money was strewn about with abandon as officials bustled around in chauffeur-driven cars during their investigations, small mountains of paperwork were generated and, as the saga reached the courts, another squad of people were drafted in, including two sets of translators to help the foreign domestic helpers who were in court, one as a witness and one as a defendant.

The total cost of this to taxpayers remains unknown and there has still been no reckoning of the indirect costs to those involved who had to attend one court hearing and two - yes, two - trials.

Woof Woof's owner was not charged with failing to rein in the hound, as the fine people from the agriculture department decided it would be better to persecute his helper. However, Dopey's owner, much to her surprise, was charged with the same offence. For reasons that remain unclear but turned out to be even more costly, the Dopey case was heard first and resulted in an acquittal.

It might be imagined that, at this point, the department's legal experts would have looked again at the pending case and decided to withdraw, especially as they had by then been furnished with information that the incident - which lasted all of about 30 seconds - took place on a piece of land rented by Woof Woof's owner.

But, no, they wanted their extra day in court. After some four hours, during which only one prosecution witness was heard, her somewhat surprising evidence resulted in the department representative deciding to apply to the judge to drop the case.

There are a couple of positive aspects to this farrago. The first is that once this ridiculous matter finally got to court, justice and good sense prevailed. This means that the legal system works, albeit tortuously and at no small expense. The second is that the officials involved in the prosecution had the grace to be shame-faced and were sheepish in their pursuit of the matter.

However, they kept insisting that they had to do what they were doing because that was the way the system worked. Unsaid but strongly implied was the fact that it was easier to go through this charade than to settle it with a strong dose of common sense outside the strict confines of the rule book.

It appears that discretion and flexibility are dangerous commodities in this organisation where applying rules to the letter is what makes for a glittering career. An official who tries to apply common sense is overwhelmed by fear of the consequences for having deviated from the rules. There are no rewards for anything that smacks of initiative.

So, good people are forced into line even though many of them know that the system is broken. There is no way for individuals to fix it; this requires action from above. However, in Hong Kong's distinctly curious system of government, the very people who are creatures of the bureaucracy also form the political leadership. They are so thoroughly immersed in the system that they can barely see outside.

Meanwhile, Woof Woof and his friends live to fight another day. It is of little comfort to know that others will also face nonsense of this kind; only a creeping sense of despair remains.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur