SCMP Saturday, August 5, 2000

Court 'speeds up' abode case


Lawyers for more than 5,000 migrants seeking the right of abode were summoned to a hastily arranged court hearing yesterday in an apparent attempt to ensure speedy progress of the case.

No mention was made of Wednesday's arson attack at Immigration Tower, but a timetable for the mammoth case was discussed and a target date set for it to go ahead on October 17.

Barrister and legislator Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee, for the migrants, said after the hearing: "It was called by the court, not by either party." She said the appeal judge, Mr Justice Arthur Leong Siu-chung, had asked how the legal team was getting on with preparations for the appeal.

Asked whether the hearing had been arranged as a response to Wednesday's incident, in which 50 people - including immigration officers and migrants - were injured, Ms Ng said she did not want to speculate. "This certainly was not mentioned. The court has the right at any time to ask how things are getting on," she said.

But other lawyers not involved in the case said the manner in which the hearing was arranged was highly unusual. A provisional date for the case was set even though the appeal has not been lodged, while it had not been scheduled on the court's list of cases published the previous evening.

Ms Ng said the purpose of the hearing had been "in order to fix some dates about the further progress of this matter".

Assistant professor Eric Cheung Tat-ming, of the University of Hong Kong, said lawyers would normally be given at least one or two days notice of such a hearing, although it was not unusual for a court to ask about the progress of case.

"Even if the court takes into account the incident which happened at Immigration Tower, I think it is not objectionable. The court, in considering the urgency of any particular case is entitled to take into account the circumstances and expedite the appeal hearing."

But Ho Hei-wah, director of the Society for Community Organisation, said there was no urgency requiring the case to be speeded up. He said the court appeared to have responded to heightened public sentiment and the "political atmosphere". "This sends out the wrong message. It will tarnish the image of the court," he said.

Director of the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor Law Yuk-kai said: "I worry that the action taken by the court yesterday might be affected by public opinion and that it was in response to the arson attack."

Bar Council member Clive Grossman SC said the circumstances in which the hearing was arranged appeared to be unusual. But he added: "There could be perfectly mundane reasons for it."

A spokeswoman for the Judiciary said the hearing had been in accordance with normal procedure. "The purpose was to check on the progress of the appeal case," she said.

The landmark case involving 5,350 migrants was ruled on by Mr Justice Frank Stock in a recent Court of First Instance judgment. He delivered a blow to the migrants by declaring they did not have the right to remain in Hong Kong. That decision will be the subject of the appeal.

Nineteen right-of-abode seekers, 13 men and six women aged between 17 and 35, were charged last night in connection with the arson attack at Immigration Tower. They face one count of arson and two counts of wounding with intent and will appear in Eastern Court today.