Judges may be partial to a light touch

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 April, 2012, 12:00am

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Our courts sometimes work in mysterious ways and the sentencing of criminals is a dark art whose fairness and justice will often have to be taken on faith by laypeople.

Take the case of John Wong, the University of Hong Kong's former head of surgery, who was spared jail this week after being convicted last month of misconduct and false accounting involving more than HK$3 million. HK$3 million! Instead, he will perform 240 hours of community service. That translates to HK$12,500 per hour.

The judge found many mitigating factors. A few especially stood out. One was that he could have opted for a lucrative private practice but decided to stay in the public sector to serve the people. The judge stopped short of calling that a noble sacrifice. Another was that Wong was really convinced the university should have paid his travel expenses. That referred to his court conviction for directing HK$731,347 from two university bank accounts to pay for a domestic helper-cum-driver over five years. The judge said this was not done out of greed, as he had a personal fortune of HK$150 million. Rich people are never greedy?

Now, compare and contrast. Indonesian maid Komariyah Siti was jailed for 16 weeks last year after she tore up HK$9,900 belonging to her employer and flushed the ripped banknotes down the toilet. She was upset because she alleged she was molested by her boss's father and was denied breakfast. Filipino maid Preslyn-saga Catacutan was slapped with a six-month jail sentence for stealing three photos and a letter while working for Canto-pop star Jacky Cheung Hok-yau in 2006, subsequently reduced to three months.

If maids face tough justice, junior civil servants don't fare much better. An assistant inspector at the Water Supplies Department was jailed for 36 months in 2005 for accepting a mooncake voucher worth HK$2,000. A Leisure and Cultural Services Department worker was ordered to do 70 hours of community service in 2010 for taking a HK$500 loan from a tennis coach. Perhaps justice was done in all these cases, even if they may not appear that way.