My Take

Justice not served by pursuing trivial action against corporate wrong-doers

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 October, 2013, 1:08am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 October, 2013, 1:08am

In Hong Kong, we go after the small fry rather than the whales. This is the legal situation we have ended up with in last year's Lamma ferry tragedy that killed 39 people, including eight children.

Hongkong Electric and Island Ferry Company - a subsidiary of Hong Kong and Kowloon Ferry - were fined HK$900 and HK$5,000 respectively for breaches of safety rules. The Marine Department was heavily criticised by a commission of inquiry but nothing much happened to it. Instead, the skippers of the two vessels are each being tried on 39 counts of manslaughter. This is clearly not a desirable picture of justice done or even seen to be done. So Hongkong Electric will now be made to suffer more by coughing up a whopping HK$4,500, instead of HK$900. As our own report said, it "had its fine increased five times". Bravo! Another strike for local justice by the legal eagles at the Justice Department! The prosecutor said the appeal against the original HK$900 fine was because it did not adequately reflect the seriousness of the offence. You don't say!

A magistrate explained he agreed to raise the fine because he had not been fully informed about the case that led him to impose the original fine. The families of the victims must feel better now, seeing how a company worth HK$138 billion is finally facing justice and made to pay.

In August, Hongkong Electric was fined HK$900 for deploying three crew members instead of the required four on board the ill-fated Lamma IV. The maximum possible fine was HK$10,000. There was no evidence that having a crew of four instead of three would have made any difference to the outcome of the tragedy. Then in September, Island Ferry Company, the owner of Sea Smooth which hit Lamma IV, was fined HK$5,000 for installing two unauthorised buoyancy tanks. The judge and the prosecutors accepted that the alteration had zero impact on safety, and there was no evidence it contributed to the collision. Even so, the Marine Department went ahead with its trivial pursuits against the companies.

Our courts are already severely overloaded, but our government saw fit to squeeze a few thousand extras in fines that would not cover a nice business dinner for Hongkong Electric's top executives - and calls it victory.