Lamma ferry disaster survivors, families considering civil suit
Ferry crash families, in private meeting with justice officials, asks what effect criminal trial may have on lawsuit against those responsible
Niall Fraser and Simpson Cheung
Survivors and grieving relatives of the 39 people who died in Hong Kong's worst ferry disaster in decades have held a private meeting with top justice officials as they consider a civil suit against anyone identified as being responsible for the tragedy.
More than 60 people attended the until-now unreported meeting held on December 13, at which victims' families sought answers as to what effect potential criminal prosecutions for the deadly October 1 collision off Lamma Island could have on any civil action they might take.
Director of Public Prosecutions Kevin Zervos and two senior marine police officers leading the criminal investigation into the tragedy attended the meeting, held under the department's Victims Charter, which aims to ensure that crime victims are properly catered for.
Police and department lawyers are now considering criminal prosecutions over the crash involving the Lamma IV ferry operated by Hongkong Electric and Hong Kong and Kowloon Ferry's Sea Smooth as passengers prepared to celebrate the National Day fireworks in Victoria Harbour. All who died were on the Lamma IV.
At the 90-minute meeting - held a day after the start of a government-appointed commission of inquiry - and in subsequent interviews with the Sunday Morning Post, some relatives said they felt legally under-represented at the inquiry, led by Mr Justice Michael Lunn.
A woman who lost a family member in the accident said the Department of Justice had explained the procedure for any criminal prosecution.
"People are worried that information which might come out at the inquiry could affect any criminal prosecution and also how that might affect any plans for a future civil action for compensation," she said.
Lunn had rejected an earlier move by the department to have the inquiry postponed until a decision was made on whether to launch a criminal prosecution.
The woman, who declined to be identified, was also concerned about the families' lack of legal representation at the inquiry, which has been adjourned until January 7.
"If some parties are represented by lawyers and some are not, of course those with lawyers would have advantages in asking questions," she said.
In the meeting, justice officials also explained that any civil action was beyond their scope of responsibility and that if such a move was taken, the families would have to apply for legal aid and hire lawyers privately.
The commission of inquiry - appointed by the Chief Executive to look into the cause of the incident, evaluate maritime safety conditions and make recommendations for improvement - sees a daily parade of legal talent representing corporate interests, the emergency services and the crews of both ferries.
Three lawyers, Paul Shieh Wing-tai SC, Roger Beresford and Mike Lui Sai-kit, are counsels for the commission. James McGowan represents Hongkong Electric and the Lamma IV crew, while Charles Sussex SC represents Hong Kong and Kowloon Ferry and the Sea Smooth crew. The Department of Justice, Fire Services Department and Commissioner of Police are represented by Johnny Mok SC and Frances Lok. All counsels have their own instructing solicitors, bringing the number of lawyers involved to at least 15.
"These companies have money to hire lawyers, but not all families have the ability to do so," the woman said. "It would be fairer if the government could offer more assistance." It is understood that legal aid is not an option at a commission of inquiry.
A man who also lost a relative in the disaster expressed similar concern. "We are an important, if not central, part of this whole process,'' said the man, who declined to be named.
An inquiry spokesman said yesterday: "As was made clear in the Notice of the Commission … in addition to those whose conduct is the subject of the inquiry and against whom criticism might be made, the commission was prepared to entertain applications from persons otherwise concerned in the events … to participate or to be legally represented in the proceedings.''