Judge blasts Hong Kong police’s ‘high degree of incompetence’, as he awards plastics firm damages
Police and the Department of Justice impounded shipping containers belonging to Chun Sang Plastics Company for up to two years and seven months. Deputy High Court judge Conrad Seagroatt said that betrayed their ‘ignorance of the law’
A judge on Friday chided Hong Kong’s police force and justice department for their “high degree of incompetence” as he awarded HK$1.7 million (US$217,000) in damages to a private company wronged by the two authorities unlawfully impounding its shipping containers.
He also decried the officials’ “ignorance of the law”.
Ruling in Chun Sang Plastics Company’s favour, deputy High Court judge Conrad Seagroatt said the Hong Kong Police Force and Department of Justice “paralysed a significant aspect” of the plastic trader’s business almost a decade ago.
The civil suit stemmed from police seizures of 17 containers in 2008. Officers believed they contained stolen goods, despite the company showing legitimate invoices.
The containers ended up in police possession for months, the last batch of six only being released two years and seven months later, after lengthy litigation. The judge concluded staff at the Department of Justice, including senior government lawyers, offered biased advice which contributed to the situation.
“The conduct of both defendants [the police commissioner and secretary for justice] illustrated a high degree of incompetence and ignorance,” the judge wrote in a judgment handed down on Friday.
“It is clear to me that the standard of instruction in respect of law, and of supervision of police officers, is seriously deficient and lamentable,” he said. The ability of department staff to comprehend “straightforward law and give sensible advice” was also lacking, he said.
He ordered the two departments to pay the company HK$1.76 million in damages as well as its legal costs.
A police spokesman said it respected the court’s judgment. Both the police and the department would study the judgment, their spokesmen said.
The Companies Registry shows Chun Sang is still active. The company lodged the suit to recoup losses incurred by having its trading assets confiscated, during a time when the global economy hit rock bottom and plastic prices fluctuated greatly.
The case dated back to October 2008, when police received various criminal complaints about Chun Sang from different suppliers.
Officers detained the 17 containers in three batches, without warrants. A representative from Chun Sang swiftly approached the police to show invoices proving the company had bought the goods through middlemen.
There were signs that the incident amounted to, at most, a civil lawsuit among private parties, the judge said. But the police elevated that to “theft and, later, fraud”.
The police released three of the containers in October. Also that month, they approached the justice department for legal advice, but it did not respond until a month later. The department told police that the containers could be released, but suggested officers left it the court to decide who the real owner of the containers was.
Only 11 containers were released by December that year.
This led to a legal fight in 2010 between Chun Sang and Y T Cheng, one of the suppliers which made the complaints. But despite a ruling in Chun Sang’s favour, the Department of Justice chose not to comply. In what the judge said was a clearly biased move, it withheld the containers so that Y T Cheng could make further opposing applications – which were rejected.
When the goods were returned to Chun Sang, the judge said, the department and the force insisted the company could take the goods inside but not the containers. Chun Sang had to lodge another lawsuit before they conceded.
The judge said the company was brought to its knees largely because of the conduct of the police. The police contacted the company’s customers and commercial contacts to tell them about the investigation.
The company’s bank had cancelled its credit facility, in a move the judge said was linked, directly or indirectly, to the police activity.