IN THE HIGH COURT OF THE
HONG KONG SPECIAL ADMINISTRATIVE REGION
COURT OF FIRST INSTANCE
LEGAL AID APPEAL NO. 20 OF 1999
Coram: Keith JA (sitting as an additional judge of the Court of First Instance) in Chambers
Date of Hearing: 15 December 2000
Date of Judgment: 15 December 2000
J U D G M E N T
1. This is the adjourned hearing of a part-heard appeal pursuant to section 26(1) of the Legal Aid Ordinance (Cap. 91) (“the Ordinance”) from the refusal of the Director of Legal Aid to grant the Appellant’s application for legal aid. Therelevant facts can be gleaned from my judgment of 3 June 1999 when I ordered that the appeal be adjourned so that various documentsto which I referred in my judgment could be supplied to the Appellant’s solicitors. Those documents have now been supplied, togetherwith copies of the statements of three officers of the Department of Correctional Services: Joyce Ho, whose statement is dated 7August 1996; Yeung Ka Mui, whose statement is dated 22 August 1996; and Wong Fung Kiu, whose statement is dated 15 July 1996. I haveread all those documents as well as a preliminary report dated 5 March 2000 from Dr Steven Strach of Forensic Documents ServicesPty. Ltd., together with its two appendices.
The current approach
2. The critical issue in the action for which the Appellant is applying for legal aid is one of fact. Was the property which it is commonground the Appellant had lodged with officers of the Department of Correctional Services in 1992 for safe-keeping when he was detainedin Whitehead Detention Centre returned to him in October 1993? This appeal is a hearing de novo. My function is to determine whether the Appellant has shown that he has reasonable grounds for taking the proceedings, bearing inmind that the issue in the case is one of fact. I do not believe that I have to be satisfied that it is more probable than not thatthe issue of fact will be decided in the Appellant’s favour. But I do have to be satisfied, I think, that the Appellant has shownthat there is a reasonable, as opposed to a fanciful, chance of the court at trial deciding that issue of fact in his favour. Thatquestion has to be decided without a prolonged investigation on the part of the court. Otherwise, the hearing of the appeal woulddegenerate into a mini-trial of the action itself.
3. I have concluded that the Appellant has shown that there is a reasonable, as opposed to a fanciful, chance of the court at trialdeciding the issue of fact in his favour. I therefore direct that the Appellant be granted a legal aid certificate to pursue hisaction against the Commissioner of Correctional Services. Since there is likely to be a trial of the action unless it is compromisedin the meantime, it is desirable that the less I say about the merits of the case the better. However, I am required by section 26(5)of the Ordinance to give reasons for my decision, and I shall therefore explain the various factors which, rightly or wrongly, Ihave taken into account in reaching my conclusion.
4. First, the Appellant’s case is that, if property involving valuables and large amounts of cash was deposited with the Department of CorrectionalServices for safe-keeping, the policy of the Department was normally not to return that property to a detainee until he left thedetention centre. That is borne out to some extent by rules 13(1), 14(2) and 15(1) of the Immigration (Vietnamese Migrants) (DetentionCentre) Rules. None of the documents before me dispute the Appellant’s assertion of that aspect of the Department’s policy. Yet thereis no explanation before me as to why, if that was the policy, an exception was made to return the Appellant’s property to him inOctober 1993.
5. Secondly, the Appellant’s case is that if a detainee wishes to have his property returned to him, he has to make a written application forit. None of the documents before me dispute the Appellant’s assertion about that aspect of the Department’s policy. The Department’sexplanation for not being able to produce such an application is that it may have been damaged in a fire at Whitehead Detention Centrein May 1996, i.e. a month or so before the Appellant, on his version of events, asked for the first time for the return of the propertyto him. However, there is nothing in the documents before me which show where such an application form would be stored or whetherthat storage area was destroyed in the fire. Nor is there any explanation before me as to why, if the application form was destroyedin the fire, the receipt for the Appellant’s property allegedly signed by the Appellant in October 1993 was not also destroyed. Thereis nothing in the documents before me containing an assertion from the Department of Correctional Services that the application formand the property record recording the Appellant’s signature on the receipt of the property would not have been kept in the same place.
6. Thirdly, the three statements from the officers of the Department of Correctional Services which have recently been produced to the Appellant’ssolicitors do not state how they could remember in 1996 a relatively unimportant incident which would have occurred about three yearsearlier. I would be inclined, if I were the judge at trial, to treat those statements as statements as to what the witnesses wouldnormally have done if a detainee requested the return of his property. In any event, their evidence does not exclude the possibilityof another inmate, who may or may not have had a superficial resemblance to the Appellant, getting hold of what is described as theAppellant’s “boat people identity card” temporarily without the Appellant’s knowledge and obtaining the property pretending to bethe Appellant.
7. Fourthly, the handwriting evidence is not decisive. Mr Leung’s opinion is only that the receipt was “probably” signed by the Appellant, andDr Strach is unable to form a considered view without (a) more examples of the Appellant’s genuine signature and the way he wrotenumbers in 1993 and (b) the original of the property record allegedly signed by him in 1993. As for the latter, that has now gonemissing. Despite a photocopy of it having been obtained in 1996 in the course of the police investigation, no explanation has beengiven as to how since then the original of the property record has disappeared.
8. Fifthly, the Appellant’s genuine signatures all have a cross through the number “7”, whereas the Appellant’s alleged signature on the receiptfor the property did not. That important difference – which at first blush would suggest that his purported signature on the propertyrecord in 1993 was not his real signature – was explained away by Mr Leung on the footing that the genuine signatures could havebeen an attempt to disguise the fact that his receipt for the property was genuine. However, that argument is significantly underminedby the fact that two of the genuine signatures containing the cross through the “7” were written in 1992 and 1994 – well before itmight have occurred to the Appellant to disguise the genuine way in which he wrote the number “7”.
9. Sixthly, if the Appellant’s account is false, he would have been claiming the return of his property in 1996 at a time when he knew thathe had applied for and obtained it in 1993 and had signed for its return to him then. That is a strong view to take of his conduct.
10. These, then, have been the factors which I have taken into account in concluding that the Appellant has satisfied me that there isa reasonable, as opposed to a fanciful, chance of the court at trial deciding the issue of fact in the Appellant’s favour.
The size of the claim
11. Finally, in my previous judgment I said:
Today, Mr Sampson Tang for the Director of Legal Aid asked me to take into account the relatively small size of the Appellant’s claim.I do not propose to do that. I do not think that it would be right for the Director of Legal Aid to be permitted to resile from theconcession made on his behalf at the previous hearing.
Ms Gladys Li SC, instructed by Messrs Pam Baker & Co., for the Appellant.
Mr Sampson Tang, of the Legal Aid Department, for the Respondent.