Special court to judge sex discrimination cases

A SPECIAL court dealing with sex discrimination cases is to be set up in Hong Kong, the Government announced yesterday.

A statutory equal opportunities commission will also be established to enforce the bill.

Unveiling the draft Sex Discrimination Bill, the Government proposed setting up the court at District Court level to hear all sex discrimination and sex harassment cases under the bill.

The public can put cases directly to the court in the form of civil litigation to seek compensation.

To help aggrieved parties, the court will be given the discretion of permitting people not legally qualified to address it - meaning staff from the commission will be able to represent complainants in court.

The use of the Chinese language will also be allowed and the court can make orders that litigants need not pay the other side's costs if they lose.

Secretary for Home Affairs, Michael Suen Ming-yeung, said the commission should be the major body overseeing the sex discrimination legislation.

The equal opportunities commission will have between four and 16 members and will be headed by a community figure with a legal background.

Other members will be representatives from women's groups, employers and employees, said Mr Suen.

It will have 40 staff and it cost $36 million a year.

The bill was gazetted yesterday and will be tabled to the Legislative Council on October 26.

The commission can investigate complaints filed by the public and require parties concerned to attend conferences to resolve the matter by conciliation.

Public reports would be issued for any formal investigations.

According to the bill, the commission will also be empowered to issue enforcement notices, which are not legally binding, against anyone deemed to have committed discriminatory acts or sexual harassment.

When a person persistently committed such acts, the commission could apply to the District Court for an injunction.

When conciliation failed, it might provide assistance in respect of proceedings before the District Court, said Mr Suen.

He added that while the Government would not fund alleged victims, they could apply for legal aid.

Mr Suen stressed the commission had an important conciliation role to safeguard equal opportunities between the sexes 'without creating an unduly litigious social environment'.

'Taken together, the measures will provide an efficient and accessible avenue of redress for the aggrieved,' he said.

While the bill makes sex discrimination and sexual harassment unlawful in employment, education and other important aspects, exemptions include the small house policy in the rural community.

The policy permits only male indigenous villagers to build 700-square-foot houses in rural areas.

The employment aspect will not come into effect until the commission has drawn up a code of practice on detailed implementation of the law because of the major impact it will have, said Mr Suen.

Small enterprises with less than five employees would be given a grace period of five years to make adjustments.

Independent legislator Anna Wu Hung-yuk and the Democratic Party criticised the exemptions as unreasonable.

Ms Wu reiterated that there should be an overall anti-discrimination bill covering sex, age, religion and other possible forms of inequalities.

She urged the Government to support her Equal Opportunities Bill which covered all these areas.

Unionist Lee Cheuk-yan also queried why the bill should leave room for some kinds of jobs to be exempted.

'Many can make use of this exemption rule to free themselves from the control because the bill failed to specify which kinds of jobs belonged to the categories mentioned,' he said.

But others said Hong Kong's small enterprises needed time to adjust to this legislation.

Wong Kam, of the Hong Kong Manufacturers' Association, made up of mainly small local enterprises, said the legislation would elicit many changes in employment policy and the employers would have to have enough time to adjust the process.

Susie Ho Shuk-yee, Principal Assistant Secretary for Home Affairs, said once the commission was set up there would be immediate consultation among employers and employees so that the code would come up as soon as possible.