A retired High Court judge believes victims and relatives of those killed in the Lamma ferry tragedy could demand the full release of a report into the disaster by launching civil proceedings against the government.
In a move likely to put pressure on officials to give a full public account of the 2012 collision that killed 39 people, William Waung Sik-ying said the internal investigation was a matter of public interest. The government has so far only released a summary of the 430-page report.
"The government is quite incredibly still trying to avoid the evil day and is desperate to minimise its responsibility in the whole affair," Waung said in an e-mail to the South China Morning Post. "I am very disturbed ... the government is taking the extraordinary position of not releasing the report, which is of course a matter of public interest."
Waung - who as leader of the Archives Action Group lodged a complaint to the ombudsman last year arguing for better management of Marine Department records - also criticised comments last week by Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung, who stressed the need for confidentiality. "The government's excuse of trying not to jeopardise possible future proceedings against the civil servants just does not wash," he said.
The damning report compiled by the Transport and Housing Bureau identified 17 marine officials - up to directorate level - possibly guilty of misconduct and said "suspected criminality" had been found in the course of the probe and transferred to police for investigation. It criticised the Marine Department's management and the "highly unsatisfactory" record keeping.
But the released summary did not reveal the identities of those liable. Relatives of those killed have urged lawmakers to invoke the powers and privileges laws of the Legislative Council to demand full disclosure.
Waung said relatives could possibly get hold of the full report by seeking legal aid so that " proceedings can be immediately brought against the government" for damages.
If no reasonable defence was put forth by the government, he said relatives could apply for a summary judgment - a ruling without a hearing. If the government objected, it would have to disclose its arguable defence.
University of Hong Kong legal scholar Eric Cheung Tat-ming said the arguable defence could include the investigation report.
"A judge will decide if the report is so sensitive as to jeopardise future criminal trials," Cheung said, adding that if the documents were deemed too sensitive, the judge could restrict access to only the families' counsel. But Cheung said a summary judgment might not be sufficient to cover such a complex issue.