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Hong Kong prides itself on its rule of law, but the law can sometimes be a harsh mistress.
Just ask taxi driver Tam Hoi-chi. Many months ago, he was accused of overcharging a passenger by 50 cents. He walked out of Eastern Court yesterday with a clear name. The prosecution offered no evidence, leaving Tam wondering why the charge had been laid in the first place.
Tam's six-month brush with the law began after he picked up a woman passenger outside the ICAC headquarters in North Point on October 26 last year and took her to Po Kong Village Road in Diamond Hill. The meter showed the fare as HK$136.50. The passenger gave the driver HK$200 and he handed her HK$63 in change, keeping the 50 cents. Rounding to the nearest dollar is a common practice.
The passenger did not ask for the 50 cents at the time but later complained to the police.
Prosecutors told the court that the decision to offer no evidence was made after reviewing the case and witness statements.
Outside court, Tam said the case had exhausted him. He said he hoped prosecution over such a trivial matter would not be "the demise of Hong Kong".
Law Society vice-president Stephen Hung Wan-shun said it was difficult to define how much was a reasonable amount to justify bringing a case to court. "If a driver pays HK$2.50 too little in change, would this amount be considered trivial?" he asked. However, he added, if he were the police officer in charge of the case, he would encourage the parties to settle outside court.
Hung said the decision to withdraw would not be seen to be encouraging the practice of taxi drivers pocketing change.
The Department of Justice said it was not consulted before the charge was laid. "The case was reviewed by the Prosecutions Division. Given the trivial nature [...] it was considered not appropriate to proceed with it."
Police said they decided not to proceed after taking legal advice.
Lai Ming-hung, chairman of the Taxi and Public Light Bus Concern Group, said the case would make cabbies more careful and he called on them to install Octopus readers. Some taxis accept Octopus and credit cards but many drivers are reluctant because they don't want to give up the chance of a tip.
Last year, 29 of 645 complaints about taxi overcharging were taken to court.