Hong Kong marine official found to have ignored life jacket law in deadly 2012 Lamma ferry disaster walks free after jail sentence cut
- So Ping-chi has prison term for misconduct in public office reduced from 16 months to 4½
A senior Hong Kong marine official who ordered staff to ignore a life jacket law before the deadly 2012 Lamma ferry disaster has failed to clear his name but won a shorter sentence, which resulted in his immediate release on Friday.
So Ping-chi, 61, was jailed for 16 months in June 2016 for misconduct in public office. A District Court judge at the time found the former assistant director of the Marine Department had seriously misconducted himself by wilfully instructing subordinates not to enforce the law and by failing to rescind that order.
His conviction was upheld on Friday, with Court of Appeal vice-president Andrew Macrae concluding that So’s conduct was “a clear case of non-feasance or breach of duty”. It represented a “serious departure” from the responsibilities of his office as a principal surveyor of ships, Macrae said.
“Members of the public, who would normally be unaware of the safety measures in place on vessels in which they are carried, and who would inevitably be ignorant as to whether they comply with the law, were entitled to trust that a regulation designed to protect them and their children at sea was being properly implemented and overseen by the officials concerned,” Macrae said.
“The appeal against the conviction must be dismissed,” he added, in passing judgment with justices Ian McWalters and Derek Pang Wai-cheong.
But the judges allowed So’s appeal against the sentence and shortened his jail term to the 4½ months he served before he was released on bail in November 2016.
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The prison time “more than satisfies” the appropriate sentence, they said.
So’s non-enforcement instruction came to light during an inquiry into the deadliest boat accident in Hong Kong in 40 years, which claimed 39 lives – including eight children – when two ferries collided near Lamma Island on October 1, 2012.
The inquiry revealed that there had been no children’s life jackets on board, despite updated requirements in the Merchant Shipping (Local Vessels)(Safety and Survey) Regulation.
It later emerged that So’s predecessor had developed a policy described as “old vessels follow old law, new vessels follow new law”, with the purpose of easing the financial burden on operators.
So and two of his successors all inherited the policy, until it was rescinded after the tragedy.
But neither his predecessor nor his two successors faced criminal sanction, and only the latter were subject to disciplinary action, which resulted in each of them receiving a warning letter.
Macrae said this should have been taken into consideration in sentencing but the original judge had not mentioned it in his reasons.
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He concluded that the appropriate sentence should have been six months’ imprisonment, with a slight reduction for So’s exemplary character.
“It is, of course, a matter for the civil service as to what further action should be taken against the appellant,” Macrae said. “However, given the unusual circumstances of the case … we would urge that the appellant should not be treated more harshly than his colleagues, who were also involved in implementing the non-enforcement policy.”
A Civil Service Bureau spokesman declined to comment on individual cases, but said “the government may cancel, reduce or suspend a pension granted, or any pension eventually granted to an officer if the officer, among others, is convicted of any offence in connection with public service under the government”.