Warwick Reid: should we forgive his crimes?

Grenville Cross asks whether disgraced former director of public prosecutions Warwick Reid, having paid a heavy price for his crimes, should now be given credit for reforming and helping others

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 March, 2013, 5:21am

"Shall there be joy in heaven over those who repent", said the 19th-century novelist Ouida, "yet no forgiveness for them upon earth?"

The news that Warwick Reid, the disgraced former director of public prosecutions, is helping people with employment problems in his native New Zealand was met with incredulity in some quarters.

As the head of the commercial crime unit in the Prosecutions Division in the late 1980s, Reid accepted HK$12.4 million in bribes in return for fixing cases, and pleaded guilty to the unexplained possession of money and assets disproportionate to his official emoluments.

The chief justice, Ti-liang Yang, said it was difficult to imagine "a type of case worse than this", and jailed Reid for eight years, ordering him to repay HK$12 million. Having struck a deal with prosecutors, Reid agreed to testify against people allegedly involved in his activities, and his sentence was later reduced to seven years, of which he served 4½.

Upon release, Reid, short of cash, again fell foul of the law, this time in New Zealand, for accepting a bribe of HK$5 million to sign a false affidavit. He was jailed for 2½ years but served only 10 months. Reid's despicable conduct caused immense damage to the legal system, and he was written off by many as a basket case.

Now Reid, 65, has spoken publicly of his "shame" at his criminal past, and of his efforts to lead a decent life. He has run a mussel processing business, operated a gymnasium, worked as a driver and argued cases in employment tribunals.

When asked last month by the Bay of Plenty Times, his local newspaper, if he was still dishonest, Reid replied "Absolutely not. The last seven or eight years I have earned a living driving buses."

Regarding Reid Legal, a firm assisting people involved in employment disputes, Reid said this was a part-time activity, and not something from which he would ever get rich. He claimed to handle on average one case a month, and insisted his clients knew of his background.

Reid insisted he was not in breach of the Legal Practitioners Act, as lay people, such as himself, are entitled to represent clients before the Employment Relations Authority and the Employment Court. He said he was, albeit at a very low level, "using my skills to assist people because the legal aid system lets them down".

If Reid's account is true, and he is now leading an honest life, and one which helps others, this is surely something positive. The legal system, after all, always hopes that criminals can be reformed, and, if genuine, the fair-minded should welcome Reid's rehabilitation. As the 16th-century lord chancellor of England, Sir Thomas More, noted, "the end of all punishment is reformation".

The danger with imprisonment, of course, is that it can turn the offender, particularly if young, into a hardened criminal. The offender becomes immersed in the prison sub-culture, mixing with unsavoury people, and this can have unfortunate consequences. If, however, imprisonment works, and the offender adopts a law-abiding life, society benefits and a potential threat is removed. As South Australia's former chief justice, Leonard King, said: "The protection of the community is also contributed to by the successful rehabilitation of offenders."

In Hong Kong, many criminals re-offend. The Correctional Services Department has estimated that nearly half the prison population commits another offence within three years of release, which suggests systemic failure, either in the treatment of prisoners or in their post-release support, or both. The offender who learns from the prison experience, therefore, deserves every encouragement upon release, and civil society must provide job opportunities for former prisoners.

There are, of course, always people who feel they can never forgive the law breaker. The crime victim, for example, may have suffered lasting physical or emotional damage, or even lost a relative or friend, and forgiveness, understandably, is hard.

In Reid's case, the friends and associates unjustly accused by him may well feel lasting antipathy. Other people, however, are simply vengeful, and have no time for criminals, reformed or otherwise.

Yet, no matter how grave the crime, credit should still, in a fair-minded society, be given to the offender who is genuinely remorseful and has managed to go straight, often in the face of great difficulty. Although both the crime and the criminal may have been condemned in the past, it is sometimes just and fair to draw a line under what has happened. Some people, undoubtedly, hope that the offender, once down, will stay down, but others feel that it is no bad thing if he or she, against the odds, turns over a new leaf.

Of course, the former criminal is always an easy target for the headline grabber and those wishing to appear tough on crime. A spokesman for the Prosecutions Division, for example, in an unseemly rush to judgment, described Reid's work in offering "legal advice" on employment issues as "astonishing", given his past offences.

The New Zealand Law Society, however, saw things differently. Its representative, Geoff Adlam, said that, although Reid was not entitled to refer to himself as a lawyer, or to provide legal services, the society was "satisfied he is not practising as a lawyer and is not giving legal advice in the areas which are reserved for lawyers".

Reid's conduct many years ago was shameful and did great harm, and, even now, there can be little sympathy for him. He received a severe sentence, and has since paid a heavy price. The consequences of what he did have been dire, for himself, his family and his friends, but he has only himself to blame.

If, however, the work he is now doing is legitimate and open, as he claims, and is really helping people, then he has made some progress in rehabilitating himself.

Reid has said "my days of infamy are over", and if this is true he must be allowed to get on with his life, out of sight of the inquisitive and the vengeful.

Grenville Cross SC, an honorary professor of law at the University of Hong Kong, is the sentencing editor of Archbold Hong Kong and Hong Kong Cases, and the co-author of Sentencing in Hong Kong