Career's end for the no-nonsense lawman

OUTGOING Ombudsman Arthur Garcia has become accustomed to controversy during his 35 years of public service.

As High Court judge from 1979 to 1989, Mr Garcia was criticised in the Court of Appeal on several occasions for allegedly misdirecting juries and interfering in trials by asking too many questions.

During the past five years, as Commissioner for Administrative Complaints - or Ombudsman - Mr Garcia has been accused by civil servants of empire-building because of his unflagging crusade to expand the powers and jurisdiction of his office.

''I don't think I would fear this type of denunciation. After all, I think I am also here to be criticised. Maybe I have a very hard rhinoceros hide,'' he says of the charges.

But he believes it is ''not justified at all'' to say his proposals were to satisfy personal ambition.

''I still maintain that the proposals I made are rather modest when compared with other countries which have the ombudsman system.'' He wants complaints to go straight to the Ombudsman, rather than, as now, having to be channelled through a Legco member. That would give more power to the public, not him, he argues.

Mr Garcia was appointed as the territory's first Ombudsman in 1989, for a five-year period. Governor Chris Patten decided in November not to renew his contract - which expires on Monday - because, according to a Government spokesman, he will be 70 next year.

Apparently unhappy with the decision when initially informed, he now seems to have come to terms with it.

''One has to accept that I'm old and of lesser use,'' he says. ''I do miss the office, but it is an inevitable fact of life that one has to retire some time, and I am in a way very fortunate to have my retirement deferred.'' He now plans to devote his time to voluntary work, working for groups like the Society for the Aged and the Society for the Home of the Handicapped.

It will be a different kind of life for a man who was said to have run the office of Ombudsman like his own company, treating the staff as his employees.

For reasons not disclosed, his deputy commissioner Michael Woollard ended his contract in December 1990 by mutual consent. Mr Wollard's post has been held vacant ever since.

Insiders say Mr Garcia was not used to delegating authority and liked to be in on every aspect of the office's functions.

His staff described him as a ''workaholic'', putting in time on Saturdays and often taking home stacks of files.

A traditionally paternal figure, Mr Garcia was also said to be demanding and strict. But when things went wrong, he would bear the responsibility alone. ''He can't tolerate any nonsense,'' said a former staff member, who added that Mr Garcia was not an easy boss to deal with.

The officer defended Mr Garcia's campaign for change. If he were an empire-builder, Mr Garcia would not have asked for a minimal personnel increase force to cope with the expanded role of the office.

Mr Garcia was appointed a magistrate in 1959, and was subsequently promoted to District Court Judge and High Court Judge.

During the last few years of his judicial career, Mr Garcia was sometimes described as being impatient on some occasions.

As a magistrate, he was once said to have asked an usher to reprimand someone he had seen slouching in the corridor outside the courtroom.

But as Ombudsman he was said to have had exercised patience in discussing problems raised by complainants.

''Being an ombudsman I could certainly ask many more questions than when I was on the bench.

''And, of course, the subject matter is of a greater variety because there are many departments working on many disciplines, and once you have variety one finds it much more interesting.'' His years on the Bench etched in his mind the golden principle that conclusions have to be drawn from evidence, not conjecture.

''It would be most unfair if we guess,'' he said.

He was well aware that neither the Government nor the public would have confidence in the office and his integrity would be questioned if he appeared to be siding with any party.

There have been suggestions that Mr Garcia's contract was not extended because he had been too tough with the Government.

But he maintained that he had to ask many questions if he wanted to do a thorough job.

He regarded his relationship with Government departments as good and co-operative.

Yet there were complainants who left unconvinced, and unhappy with his findings.

''I think it is quite difficult to make an unhappy man happy because he has got in his mind all the time he is right, whereas he has been proved wrong by the evidence given to us.'' Perhaps, Mr Garcia's biggest regret over the past five years was the persistently low number of complaints the office received.

A total of 167 were lodged during the first year the office operated, and 162 in 1992-93.

In his annual reports he blamed the referral system for the lukewarm response.

Did the Chinese trait of reluctance to complain play a role? Or was the Government simply doing a marvellous job? ''I think people here do complain when they have a real complaint. Sometimes when they have exhausted all avenues they bring their complaints here.'' Mr Garcia said he found the public treated his office as the last resort, and not the first.

''We have got several channels to complain [through]. They are entitled to use whatever channels they think is most suitable to them.'' But despite the less-than-enthusiastic response, there is little doubt that Mr Garcia and his team have provided an effective check on the Government, as manifested by the ripples his reports often sent through Government departments and the community.