The government is looking for a "highly credible person", possibly a judge, to head an independent, statutory commission of inquiry into the causes of last week's boat collision off Lamma Island which killed 39 people.
Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said yesterday law enforcers would continue their own investigation into the disaster and rejected suggestions that the separate inquiry would affect future legal proceedings.
"The commission will not rule on the criminal and civil liability of any person. This is not in its terms of reference," she said.
Her comments came after the Executive Council agreed to set up the commission, which will also review maritime safety conditions and recommend measures to prevent future accidents.
Since 1966, at least 14 statutory commissions have been launched to probe matters of public importance, including the deadly 1996 blaze in the Garley Building in Jordan that claimed 40 lives. Civic Party lawmaker Ronny Tong Ka-wah said a marine court, empowered to investigate potential misconduct and incompetence by ship masters, would be better equipped to look into a sea disaster.
Lam acknowledged it could be difficult to find a judge with knowledge of maritime affairs, but said a commission was more suitable as the city lacked experience in marine court proceedings. She said such a commission would usually be formed by one or two persons, possibly including a judge. It could invite experts, ask other departments for reports and summon witnesses before reporting the result to the chief executive in six months.
Hong Kong University associate law professor Benny Tai Yiu-ting said it was possible that survivors would have to recount their traumatic experiences more than once in various proceedings and investigations. The Hongkong Electric vessel Lamma IV, badly damaged in the collision with the Ferry Sea Smooth on October 1 and now beached at Nga Kau Wan on Lamma Island, will be towed to a government dockyard at Stonecutters next week.
Investigators will carry out an inspection and collect forensic evidence. "We are focusing on what the captains [say they did] at the time of the incident and then studying whether their claims match the evidence," a government source said.
The two captains and five crew members of the two vessels arrested after the crash are likely to have their bail extended when they report back to police later this month as more time is needed to collect evidence and seek legal advice, said another source.
Civic Party lawmaker Dr Kenneth Chan Ka-lok said he would propose an adjournment debate on the aftermath of the collision when the new Legco term resumes today.
Lam also said the Social Welfare Department was working with the 32 families of the 39 victims to provide counselling and help with funeral arrangements.
She would also ask the Community Care Fund to discuss possible ways to help them.