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City Weekend

Nine controversial Hong Kong court cases and why they caused a stir

Rachel Blundy and Jessica Mary Turner look back at some of the city’s more frivolous court cases, following public outcry over an elderly woman who was arrested for selling cardboard for HK$1.

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 July, 2017, 12:02pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 September, 2017, 3:03pm

The world loves underdogs, and Hong Kong, it seems, is no different.

In a classic case of people power, an elderly Hong Kong woman, who was arrested for selling cardboard to a foreign domestic helper for HK$1 last month, had her charges dropped following public outcry.

The 75 year old, who was accused of trading without a hawker licence in Central on June 11, was eventually told she would face no court action after 15,000 people signed a petition to the government.

The case sparked accusations that officials at the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department had treated a frail, vulnerable old lady in a “merciless” way, possibly due to being overly concerned with pleasing their bosses.

Arrested for selling HK$1 cardboard? Group rallies behind elderly Hong Kong woman

Dr Ko Wing-man, former food and health minister, said the bureau would work with the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department to review the enforcement system.

But the case is certainly not the first petty misdemeanour in Hong Kong to become national news after facing or indeed resulting in prosecution.

The city saw a taxi driver facing prosecution for pocketing 50 cents change in 2013; the case of an elderly bicycle repairman facing charges of illegal hawking after being given HK$10 by neighbour in 2015; and a domestic helper cleared of theft after keeping HK$15 change from her employer in 2013.

Andrew Powner, partner at local law firm Haldanes Solicitors & Notaries, said it was reassuring that few cases were being escalated by the authorities unnecessarily, and where they were, it was generally because inexperienced junior government workers were making mistakes.

“Fortunately it is not happening too often,” he said.

“You do not have cases like the hawker one every day. It is the exception and not the norm.

“I hope the officers in the hawker case have been sent for some training.

“They need to exercise some sensible discretion. I do not think senior officials would make that decision.”

In criminal cases that do reach the courts, Hong Kong magistrates have the power to bind over the defendant if they do not consider their offence to be serious enough to warrant punishment, such as a very minor assault.

The defendant must generally be of good character and often have no previous convictions.

The Department of Justice must then liaise with police in these instances to decide whether a bind over is appropriate.

If all parties agree to it, then the defendant will plead not guilty, and the prosecution will subsequently offer no evidence against him or her.

The defendant must then agree that the facts of the case are true in open court before he or she is given a court order, which means further court action against them may be taken if a further offence is committed within a certain time period, typically about two years.

Powner said the system was an effective way of ensuring defendants accused of minor crimes were prevented from reoffending, while avoiding criminal records and preventing an unnecessary expenditure of public money.

“If the case is so minor, then I would hope the justices would offer a bind over,” he said.

“It is not so much about the law and getting it changed. It is about how the authorities use the legislation.”

Here, City Weekend looks at eight court cases in Hong Kong that have caused a stir among the public.

1. Taxi driver cleared for keeping 50 cents change

Case outline: In October 2012, taxi driver Tam Hoi-chi was accused of overcharging a customer by 50 cents for a journey from North Point to Diamond Hill. The cabbie was alleged to have given the woman HK$63 after being paid HK$200 for the HK$136.50 journey, although she didn’t complain at the time. In May 2013, when the case eventually reached Eastern Court, it was thrown out after prosecutors decided to offer no evidence upon reviewing witness statements. The Department of Justice admitted the case had been scrapped because of its “trivial nature”, adding that it had not been consulted before the charges were laid.

Reaction: Lai Ming-hung, chairman of the Taxi and Public Light Bus Concern Group, said the case would make cabbies more careful, and called on them to install Octopus readers to avoid such conflicts. Netizens suggested the police should not have allowed the case to go to court. Meanwhile an exhausted Tam said he hoped prosecution over such a trivial matter would not be “the demise of Hong Kong”.

2. Hong Kong protester spared jail after assaulting policeman with her breast

Case outline: On March 1, 2015, Ng Lai-ying, 30, bumped officer Chief Inspector Chan Ka-po with her chest in order to help her boyfriend, Kwong Chun-lung, who obstructed Chan. She was originally sentenced to three months and 15 days in prison after the protest against parallel traders from the mainland in Yuen Long. She failed to overturn her conviction but she did have her sentence changed to 200 hours of community service on appeal in September 2016. Mrs Justice Judianna Barnes Wai-ling decided Ng had been using her chest to protect her boyfriend at the time.

Reaction: The case sparked further protests and an international media storm, with Ng’s sympathisers expressing bewilderment at how a woman could use her breast as a weapon. Some activists suggested the case would deter women from joining similar protests. Social worker Jordi Tsang Sing-cheung, who wore a coconut bra to one protest in August 2015, said: “The way I dress today looks quite ugly as a male, but it is not as ugly as the judgment, which is like pointing at a deer and calling it a horse.”

3. Secondary school students spared jail for selling drug-laced delicacies to classmates at an athletics meeting in Tsing Yi

Case outline: In December 2015, an 18-year-old pupil from a Hong Kong school was fined

HK$10,000 at Tsuen Wan Court for selling five hash brownies and 22 weed cupcakes at an athletics meeting being held at a Tsing Yi venue. Her 17-year-old co-defendant admitted the same charge in relation to selling the cakes at the school sports event on November 3, 2014. The 18 year old was a Form Four pupil at the school while the other girl was a former pupil. Acting Principal Magistrate Cheang Kei-hong fined the older girl instead of jailing her because of her young age and her guilty plea. The other girl was given a one-year suspended sentence.

Reaction: Hong Kong netizens appeared divided over the case; some suggested the judge had been more lenient than if the case had happened on the mainland or South Asian countries, but others suggested the parents of the girls were to blame for their misdemeanours.

4. Domestic helper cleared of theft for keeping HK$15 change

Case outline: On April 29, 2013, a Filipino domestic helper was given HK$50 by her employer to buy pork, and dutifully bought some for HK$35, but kept the change. She was subsequently charged with theft, which she admitted under caution. But when the case reached court in May 2013, prosecutors decided not to offer any evidence against her, and instead put her on a good behaviour bond.

Reaction: The case again divided Hongkongers. Some staff recruitment agencies said the case should serve as a warning to other domestic helpers. Teresa Liu Tsui-lan, managing director of the Technic Employment Service Centre, went as far to say that stealing HK$15 might also warrant a jail term. “However trivial the amount, violating the law is violating the law,” she said. But others suggested the authorities had been needlessly draconian in their efforts. Joseph Law Kwan-din, chairman of the Employers of Overseas Domestic Helpers Association, said: “Employers tend to tolerate such an act as long as the maids don’t overdo it.”

5. Bicycle repairman given HK$10 by neighbour walks free from court after illegal hawking charges are dropped

Case outline: In June 2015, Suen Tak-fui, 65, was arrested for accepting HK$10 to repair his neighbour’s bicycle in Sha Tin. He told officers he spent HK$15 on replacement handlebars. When the case came to court in July 2015, the prosecution dropped the charges, prompting Special Magistrate Chan Chi-kim to ask why government officers had confiscated more than 60 repair items from Suen, including tyres and chains.

Reaction: Hongkongers were generally incredulous over the actions of the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, who originally alerted police. Meanwhile a relieved Suen said he would continue to do voluntary repairs for neighbours. Members of the Hong Kong Cycling Alliance rallied around Suen in his time of crisis.

6. Man thought he was being burgled so escaped and then broke into a neighbour’s flat because he was thirsty

Case outline: On February 12, 2016, a man who thought his Kwai Chung flat was being burgled climbed out of his window to escape. While descending 10 floors, he became thirsty and broke into a sixth-floor flat by smashing its window. He stole a bottle of water and left through the main door. The 41-year-old defendant pleaded guilty and was given a 12-month sentence. The judge took into consideration the man’s bizarre behaviour due to long-time drug use and suspended the sentence for three years.

Reaction: The judge deemed the case “a rather strange burglary case”. Such an offence carries a maximum prison sentence of 14 years. Some felt the case should not have gone to court because of the man’s drug-induced behaviour, and suggested that treatment for mental illness would have been a better solution.

7. Fine for restaurant for serving abalone dish without key ingredient

Case outline: Ming Yuen Banquet Hall in Kwai Chung was handed a HK$5,000 fine over serving abalone fried rice that was missing the key ingredient – abalone. In an attempt to cut costs, chefs replaced abalone with another type of mollusc. The issue went to court in May 2017 and the West Kowloon Court found the restaurant’s act was a breach of the Trade Descriptions Ordinance. In trade or business, using false descriptions may be liable to a maximum penalty of HK$500,000 and five years’ imprisonment under the ordinance. Originally priced at HK$88, the restaurant still sells genuine abalone fried rice at the increased price of HK$108.

Reaction: Many Hongkongers felt that the small fine would not deter other restaurants from similar malpractice. The case received wide public attention encouraging people to inform customs officers of other offenders. Hong Kong residents are thinking more about what substandard ingredients could go into local delicacies such as bird’s nest soup or turtle jelly.

8. Radical lawmaker goes to court over a haircut

Case outline: It used to be a requirement for male prisoners in Hong Kong to have a haircut “sufficiently close for the purpose of health and cleanliness”. But lawmaker “Long Hair”

Leung Kwok-hung challenged correctional services on the lawfulness of the requirement. Leung made the case on grounds of sexual discrimination – female inmates are not required to have the haircut. He stressed the haircut undermined his dignity. The court ruled the case unlawful in January 2017 and gave correctional services until June 1 to implement the order.

Reaction: Hong Kong residents were left in disbelief that public money could be wasted on a court case challenging a haircut, but some locals took to social media to celebrate the furthering of gender equality in the city. One social media user who supported the court’s decision queried: “What’s childish about fighting against discrimination and for free speech?”

9. Hong Kong designer cleared after MTR charged her with failure to produce ID over a roll of fabric

Case outline: Vivian Cheng Wai-kwan, a Denmark-based designer, was taken to court by MTR Corporation for failing to show her identity card when asked. The incident occurred on October 26, 2015, when Cheng was stopped by MTR staff for a roll of fabric that exceeded the maximum length for an object on the city’s trains. The roll of fabric was only 5cm longer than the 145cm requirement. The designer asked if she could hide the fabric under her T-shirt, as there were no restrictions on the body size of passengers. MTR staff were unhappy with Cheng’s solution and asked for her identity card. She refused and they called the police who decided it was unnecessary to take action. Subsequently, MTR Corp filed a court order that Cheng breached an MTR by-law. The law carries a maximum penalty of HK$5,000 and up to six months in prison. The designer went to court in October 2016 and accepted the fine, however the judge reviewed the information that she provided and repealed the charge.

Reaction: In a letter to Cheng, an MTR representative stated that the “actions taken by staff in pursuance of their duties and powers were appropriate”. Many citizens called the MTR actions unjust and an abuse of power. Similar frivolous laws have caused public outrage. In 2015 a music student attempted to take his cello on the train and was threatened with a HK$2,000 fine.