Justice chiefs are forced to beg for court costs bailout

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 November, 2011, 12:00am


The government is due to pay out a colossal HK$186 million in court costs this fiscal year - more than double the amount paid last year.

The bill for criminal cases in the six months since April 1 has hit HK$67.9 million, largely due to drawn-out negotiations and big unanticipated costs.

That compares to HK$64.2 million for the whole of last year and the largest total for a decade.

The Department of Justice has exhausted the HK$89.4 million allocated this year and has already dipped into its operating account for another HK$10 million. It is now asking Legco's finance committee for another HK$86.6 million to get it through the year. The request will be debated by Legco's legal panel on Monday. Officials said there was a backlog of complicated cases - one dating as far back as 1999 - that all needed paying for. The Department of Justice describes 'unanticipated court costs requirements for some mega cases' and the 'protracted negotiation process' as the reasons for the unusual increase in costs.

Director of Public Prosecutions Kevin Zervos said: 'It just so happens that they've now bottlenecked or accumulated into this financial year in terms of the issues related to costs.

'Also, the cases by their nature are difficult, complicated, maybe protracted cases - hence considerable amounts of costs have been incurred. It's the price you have to pay to have a legal system as we do.'

While the loser in a civil case often pays the legal costs for the other side, in criminal cases the government usually pays, win or lose. Some of the 'mega-cases', the costs of which are only now being realised, include the conviction of Nancy Kissel, the US expatriate who murdered her banker husband.

Another is the action against five advisers to Chau Ching-ngai - one of China's richest men - who were jailed for helping Chau conspire to defraud Shanghai Land shareholders.

Both went through multiple trials to the city's top court and used an expensive legal team.

According to Simon Young Ngai-man, of the centre for comparative and public law at the University of Hong Kong, the government was still correct to prosecute on some of the major Court of Final Appeal cases, even though it lost.

'Knowing those cases, one has to go behind each of them to ask whether those costs were avoidable by either deciding not to appeal or in conceding the appeal.

'But probably, in many of them, they were not avoidable,' he said.