Lamma ferry crash

William Waung - a judge used to speaking his mind

William Waung's criticism of report on Lamma tragedy is in keeping with his outspoken style

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 April, 2014, 6:05am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 April, 2014, 6:05am

Few in legal circles batted an eyelid when retired High Court judge William Waung Sik-ying yesterday slammed the government's decision to withhold the bulk of an investigation report into the 2012 Lamma sea tragedy.

Waung's high-profile criticism not only coincides with his tireless advocacy for an archives law, but is also backed by his expertise in admiralty law, built up over almost two and a half decades in the judicial role.

His outspoken style in the institution is no secret, either.

"As a judge, [Waung] has demonstrated compassion and a strong sense of justice," Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung, then Bar Association chairman and now secretary for justice, said of the outgoing judge at his farewell hearing in 2008.

That passion to do right continued into his retirement from the High Court, as Waung wasted no time in co-founding the Archives Action Group with retired District Court judge Chua Fi-lan and former Government Records Service directors Don Brech and Simon Chu Fook-keung.

Together, they shed light on the government's persistent inability to follow the examples of overseas jurisdictions and draft a law protecting the city's official records.

Yesterday Waung spoke out again, after the government released only part of a 430-page report on an internal investigation into one of Hong Kong's deadliest maritime disasters.

Waung's remarkable career on the bench began in 1984, a long tenure during which his sharp tongue and strongly worded judgments often left red faces among the lawyers and litigation parties.

In 2005, he called an HSBC banker "the ugly face of capitalism", saying the bank had breached its fiduciary duty by using economic duress and undue influence to make a company sell its property in the 1980s.

"It was the devil's work and commands what I can only call awe and horror for the total lack of morality or legality," he said in a 112-page judgment written in 14 months, which was later overturned by an upper court. "This for me is a most unhappy page in the history of the bank."

Then there were lighter moments. Waung laughed in court during a colourful trial in 2000 in which flamboyant billionaire Cecil Chao Sze-tsung appeared as a defence witness after former girlfriend Terri Holladay sued a legal firm. The judge described as "astronomical" the multimillion-dollar credit-card payments the pair had made.

And when Chao told the court he did not understand the meaning of the word "playboy", Waung said: "Everyone in the court knows what it means."

Notably, Waung was the only one of three appeal judges to back the attempt of property tycoon Nina Wang Kung Yu-sum in 2003 to overturn a lower court's ruling that she had fabricated her late husband's will. The Court of Final Appeal ruled in Wang's favour subsequently.

"When a judge reaches a decision," Waung later told reporters, "one couldn't only think about whether an upper court would think that it's wrong. One should rule in a way it should be ruled."