Four men accused of involvement in a drug-peddling syndicate escaped trial yesterday when a judge ruled the prosecution was guilty of misconduct.
Mr Justice Colin Jackson expressed his 'dissatisfaction, irritation, annoyance and indeed exasperation in relation to the prosecution's conduct of these proceedings'.
He said it would be 'oppressive' and 'unfair' for the men to face another trial.
Four trials have been aborted, with juries being discharged, since the case began in February. On three occasions, this was because of problems with the prosecution case.
The Government had been responsible for an abuse of the court process by failing to disclose information which could be vital to the defence and manipulating the way in which evidence was put before the court, the judge ruled.
'It is my view that the conduct of the prosecution in the last trial fell far short of what a court is entitled to expect,' Mr Justice Jackson said.
He ordered a permanent stay of proceedings against the four defendants, accused of plotting to deal in heroin on Sau Mau Ping Estate between October and December 1997. Chan Cheuk-hung, Chui Kwai-sang, Wong Kwok-kuen and Poon Siu-ming, arrested after an undercover police operation, had denied the offence, which carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
After the ruling, Director of Public Prosecutions Grenville Cross SC said he would study the judge's remarks and a report by a prosecutor in the case before deciding whether there were lessons to be learned or action to be taken.
Defence barristers Ronald Mayne, Hanif Mughal, Kevin Chan and Graeme Mackay had argued at the Court of First Instance that the case should be halted.
Their main criticism was a prosecution failure, for many months, to provide evidence relating to the source of photographs used to help identify the defendants.
Mr Justice Jackson agreed and suggested the information had been withheld because it would have been advantageous to the defence.
The dispute centred on the origin of the photos and circumstances in which they were taken.
Mr Justice Jackson also took into account the ordeal of a fifth trial on the accused, their time in custody and the cost to taxpayers if he ordered a new trial, which would last at least two months.