Barrister should head police watchdog, current chairman says

Current IPCC chief says his successor must be perceived as impartial amid a sensitive political environment, and senior barristers fit the bill

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 April, 2013, 4:59am

The next head of the Independent Police Complaints Council should ideally be a senior barrister because the position requires someone the public perceives as politically neutral, the watchdog's current chairman has said.

Jat Sew-tong, himself a senior counsel, said it is especially important the organisation is "seen as impartial" amid a sensitive political atmosphere in the city. He will step down from the post in May next year having served three successive terms.

"Any watchdog should be neutral. Its image of neutrality is important especially in today's political environment," he told the South China Morning Post. "Barristers or senior counsel have a public image of impartiality. Solicitors are seen to be close to businessmen and the rich. It is such a sensitive time and it would be better to find a senior counsel with a strong image of neutrality to head the IPCC."

Jat warned that candidates regarded as allies of high-ranking officials should not be chosen for the post.

Activists and lawmakers have accused police of using unnecessarily high-handed tactics in recent years in dealing with protesters, and the watchdog has upheld some of those complaints.

Jat took the helm at the council in 2008. Before him the council had been chaired by both senior counsel such as Robert Tang Ching, now a permanent judge of the Court of Final Appeal, and non-lawyers, including then-lawmaker for the accounting constituency Eric Li Ka-cheung.

The past three chairmen have all been senior counsel, however.

Jat has also been in charge of the Minimum Wage Commission since 2011, the year the city's first wage floor was introduced.

Police Inspectors' Association chairman Benjamin Tsang Chiu-fo agreed with Jat. Having a chairman perceived as impartial benefits both the general public and the police, he said.

"Not all complaints lodged to the IPCC were true - some were fabricated with the aim of embarrassing the force. Therefore, an unbiased chairman is important in upholding the IPCC's credibility," Tsang said.

Icarus Wong Ho-yin, vice-convenor of the Civil Human Rights Front and a frequent protester, praised Jat for having done "a good job" during his tenure, especially when the council took the initiative to review the use of new police equipment such as officers' hands-free cameras, even before any complaints had been made about them.

"I expect his successor to possess legal knowledge, but also an awareness of defending human and civil rights," Wong said.

Jat took the unprecedented step as chairman of sending several council members to observe the police's handling of protesters during the annual July 1 march last year. They gave suggestions on crowd and traffic control to police afterwards.

The council also criticised the police's handling of then vice-premier Li Keqiang's visit to Hong Kong in 2011, questioning why officers were ordered to "pre-empt embarrassment".