With the Hong Kong civil service living through some of the most trying times in its history, there is not likely to be much official enthusiasm for the Ombudsman's proposal to make errant departments pay compensation to their victims. Life promises to be difficult enough in the administrative offices over the coming months without having to pay financial penalties for bureaucratic mistakes. There have been many in the past year. A small proportion, perhaps, in relation to the volume of work that Government handles. But to the individuals concerned, who have genuine and serious grievances, it only takes one mistake to have profound and lasting effects. Until now, Ombudsman Andrew So Kwok-wing has investigated complaints, admonished the department responsible, and in some cases insisted that a formal apology is made. That is as far as it went. People who felt entitled to greater redress have had to take their case to the courts. In the last 12 months, the Ombudsman has found the Hospital Authority and the Prince of Wales Hospital guilty of maladministration after urgent surgery was twice cancelled for a cancer patient. He ordered the Education Department to review procedures after a deaf child was prevented from getting specialised school because of a missing file. He made the Social Welfare Department apologise to a man seriously burned in a bombing incident who was made to wait five years for full compensation for his injuries. Everything from the chaos caused to pupils and their parents by the red rain school closures, to delays over Labour Tribunal procedures has come into his remit this year. And although some cases amount to little more than temporary inconvenience, others affect life-and-death issues. The Ombudsman always had the power to make errant departments pay compensation, but has not put it into practice. He will do so after new guidelines are issued in March, even though there may be some resistance within Government circles. If wiser counsel prevails, his plan will be supported. It will cut court waiting lists, and enable those who cannot afford to take legal action to get financial compensation if they have suffered from serious malpractice. The system cannot be abused, because complainants who decide to accept a negotiated settlement must waive their right to take the case further. Knowing that serious mistakes will cost them money should also help to concentrate minds in less efficient government departments.