Sex case dropped as phone link fails

A prosecutor dropped a sex case without approval yesterday after telling a judge: 'The Legal Department is being manned by a telephone answering machine.' Keith Oderberg, a private barrister hired by the department, made the crucial decision without advice from his superiors because he could not contact them.

He told the judge: 'I have endeavoured to take instructions. Unfortunately, the Legal Department is being manned by a telephone answering machine at the moment.' Mrs Justice Verina Bokhary expressed surprise, saying: 'At this time in the morning?' Mr Oderberg then dropped the case against a 21-year-old man accused of having unlawful sex with his 14-year-old girlfriend.

No evidence was also offered against a herbalist accused of giving the girl an illegal abortion.

The prosecution could not continue with the case because the girl, its prime witness, failed to appear at court for the trial.

She has escaped from a home and is on the run.

Mr Oderberg told the judge the girl had telephoned her mother at 6 am yesterday to say she intended to be at court for the 9.30 am hearing.

The case was adjourned to give her time to make the journey. But by 11.30 am she had not arrived.

Before returning to court Mr Oderberg was seen making calls on his mobile telephone. He switched it off only when the judge came into court.

After telling her that he had been unable to obtain advice from Legal Department bosses, Mr Oderberg said he would offer no evidence.

He could not say with confidence that if the case was adjourned the witness would appear on the next occasion.

'I can't proceed without her,' he told the judge.

A spokesman for the Legal Department said it did not employ a switchboard operator as each counsel has an individual telephone.

Mr Oderberg's message was left on the receptionist's answering machine.

The spokesman said Mr Oderberg's call was returned at noon, but he was not available on his mobile. By this time, the charges had been dropped.

When the South China Morning Post asked the Legal Department to explain why the telephone had not been manned, the spokesman described the request as 'an extraordinary inquiry'.

If the trial had gone ahead the prosecution would have alleged that the man had sex with the girl between March 1 and April 22 last year.

She became pregnant and Hau Sau-ying, 54, an experienced herbalist from China, was alleged to have given the girl an illegal abortion.

Both defendants denied the allegations and verdicts of not guilty were entered by the judge.