The figure of justice is traditionally depicted with a sword in one hand – to punish – a scales in the other – to weigh evidence – and a blindfold, indicating that she does not consider irrelevant matters. So I was a bit disconcerted the other day to hear Mr Justice Wally Yeung complain that an argument put forward by a lawyer before him was “blinding the court”. Isn’t the court supposed to be blind?

This came up in the hearing in the Court of Appeal which culminated in the jailing of 13 people who had been convicted of “forcible entry” arising from a protest in June 2014. Barrister Douglas Kwok, defending some of the accused, said that the prosecution had overstepped the limits of an appeal against sentencing. “Appeals against sentencing have to abide by the factual rulings made by the lower court. Otherwise it would be no different from a retrial.” Yeung J rejected this on the basis that it was basically “blinding the court”. In other words, in Mr Yeung’s view, the Court of Appeal is free to consider, and the prosecution is free to offer, versions of the facts which were not accepted by the judge in the original trial.

There are some problems with this. There are of course limits on the powers of the Court of Appeal, as there are on any body operating under the rule of law. If the Court of Appeal exceeds those powers, as on occasions it has done, the matter has to be rectified by the Court of Final Appeal. It may well be, indeed it ought to be, that when considering appeals for a heavier sentence the Court of Appeal is expected to abide by rulings of fact made in the court where the case was first heard. After all from a common sense point of view the judge or magistrate who made those findings had one advantage which the learned judges in the Court of Appeal do not enjoy – he or she has heard the evidence.

Readers who prefer to consider the matters of legal principle involved will recall that in the English legal system a person is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty. After that he remains innocent of any crimes of which he has not been proven guilty. The original hearing is not some sort of elaborate preliminary to the real decision, to be made by the Court of Appeal. Its purpose is to determine what the accused can be proven to have done. They are entitled to be regarded as innocent of anything which they have not been proven to have done.

We can of course look at it another way. What is the evidence which Mr Yeung is so keen to hear that obstructing it would be “blinding the court”. The Court of Appeal does not hear witnesses, visit the scene of the crime, or view videos. All it has before it are the findings of the lower court and the arguments of counsel for each side. So what is it that Mr Yeung wants the court to “see”. The newspapers? I hope not. I have always cherished the wise words of Mr Justice Salmon, who said that “no judge of the High Court would be influenced by what was in the newspapers. If he was he would not be fit to be a judge”. There is no news on television worth speaking of these days and we can I think exclude the possibility that one or two judges of the Court of Appeal were present at the scene of the crime.

This leaves us with new statements of fact made by counsel for the Director of Public Prosecutions, which are subject to no tests of their weight, no requirement that they should be backed up by evidence and no opportunities for the defence to cross-examine their source, supposing that they have one outside the vivid imagination of counsel and the leader page of the China Daily. I conclude that there are some things to which the court should be “blind”, if that is the way Mr Yeung wants to put it. Another way of putting it would be that the Court of Appeal should be fair to those appearing before it. In June 2014 Hong Kong had not had a riot for decades and the excitement of Occupy was still in the future. The promotion of “riot” to a four-letter word was even further in the future. It should not be backdated.


Money down the train

Well this may be a rude question, but the arrival of a new train for the new Express Rail Link/white elephant/co-location catastrophe had me wondering. Why are we paying for the trains? According to Global Rail News, which takes an interest in these things, the one which arrived the other week was actually the third. The first two arrived before the rails were ready so they came by sea. Why they could not wait was not mentioned. There will in due course, apparently, be another six, bringing the grand total to nine.

Now let us assume that the official figure for a trip to Guangzhou — 48 minutes — is accurate. Allow a few hours a day for maintenance, cleaning and such we can hope to see each train do maybe 10 return trips. This means with nine trains, assuming journeys go all the way to Guangzhou, which of course they may not, “our” trains can manage about 90 trips. According to a leaked document published in Mind Pao recently there will be 190 trains a day in our extravagant new station. This is an interesting figure. It appears actually that planning has proceeded on the basis that about half of the trains which are going to visit Kowloon should be paid for by the Hong Kong taxpayer, even though four fifths of the line between here and Guangzhou is in China. This was very accommodating of us. Shenzhen officials have been complaining for years that their part of the line is losing money, a deficiency which they fondly hope will be remedied when travellers can carry on to Hong Kong. Why can the existing trains not just extend their journeys another 30 km? It is difficult to believe that having us as the new end of the line is going to double the existing traffic.

By coincidence my last holiday included a trip by train from London to Edinburgh. Nowadays this takes a little over four hours. The distance is about 400 miles so the train averages about 100 miles an hour. Top speed is about 120, same as our tunnel. This is not considered worth making a fuss about. The train runs on the same rails that the old steam trains used. In fact it passes a small memorial on one stretch of track reporting that at that spot a steam locomotive named Mallard did 125 mph in 1938. This was, and still is, the record for steam propulsion. We really haven’t come very far.

And as far as the Express Rail Link is concerned we are not going to be going very fast either. According to Ming Pao, of the 190 trains a day in the planning document, only seven will skip the first new station on the line – Futian in Shenzhen – and only one (one!) will actually go non-stop to Guangzhou. Michael Tien Puk-sun, chairman of LegCo’s Panel on Transport, reportedly told Ming Pao that the arrangement was appropriate as most passengers’ destinations were Futian or Shenzhen North, and Guangzhou South was only an interchange station to other mainland cities, so if trains did not stop at other stations the service would not be sustainable. But this is not what we were told when we were invited to pony up 80 megabucks for the new line. It was not supposed to provide a faster link to Shenzhen. If Guangzhou South is only an interchange station for other Chinese cities we are going to pay through the nose for an alternative to air travel which will only appeal to very nervous fliers.

High Speed Rail technology is totally unsuitable for providing local services. According to Dr Jean-Paul Rodrigue (whose book The Geography of Transport Systems can be perused here: https://people.hofstra.edu/geotrans/eng/ch3en/appl3en/ch3a1en.html) “A distance of 50 km is often considered a minimum, leaving enough for trains to accelerate and reach cruising speed. Servicing too many stations undermines the rationale of high speed systems…” This is an interesting view in the light of the distance between Hong Kong and Shenzhen (29 km). There is another 100 km to go to Guangzhou, but the latest maps show four intermediate stations on that part of the trip, so we may suppose them to be on average about 20 km apart. Politics, I fear, have trumped technology. Prepare for an expensive experience.

Call me a glutton for punishment, but when it appeared on the Judiciary website I read the judgment of Mr Justice Au in the legislators’ oaths cases. This was not fun. At the end I felt as if I had been beaten repeatedly over the head with a volume of the old hardback Laws of Hong Kong.

Mr Au is apparently not inspired by the observation of the then Master of the Rolls, Lord Denning, that judgments should be written in a way which allows them to be understood by the lay clients involved in the case. Nor, alas, does he have that lucidity which makes some quite technical judgments a pleasure to read.

These are not complaints. Writing legal documents is a difficult and highly specialised art. The results are not meant to be entertaining, even to legal groupies like me. Sometimes we are lucky. And sometimes we’re not.  I understand that on non-legal matters Mr Au is regarded as a bit of a humourist. A well-concealed trait, in working hours.

This is not a preliminary warm-up for a complaint about the result. Clearly the “interpretation” of the relevant Basic Law was intended to provide a legal reason for the exclusion of some members from the Legislative Council. As that was its purpose it would have been surprising if it had not worked.

Once the Court of Appeal had given the nod to the idea that the interpretation was automatically backdated to 1997 Mr Au really had no choice but to proceed with the flagrantly unfair notion that what had been acceptable for 20 years was now grounds for instant defenestration from Legco, and had been such grounds even before it was thought of by our imperial masters.

Students of legal thought will find some interesting by-products of this process. The interpretation says that the taking of the Legco Oath must be done “accurately, solemnly and sincerely”.

Now “accurately”, if I understand the situation correctly, has been expanded a bit to include the notion that the swearer must utter the oath, the whole oath, and nothing but the oath. Say anything before or after and you are no longer accurate. It is not enough to read the words on the card. You must not say anything else. A careless “so help me God” could be very expensive.

Solemnly, you would think, presents few problems. Did the swearer giggle, wear a red nose, insert a joke? Well this also has expanded a bit. Its most interesting feat has been to take over the space formerly occupied by sincerely.

Here I smell a small rat. Because the law, apparently, is that the court will decide on an objective basis whether the oath was solemn. Which is easy enough. These days there will be video. But owing to the conflation of the two concepts the court is also, it seems, deciding whether the vote was sincere.

Indeed Mr Au at one point explicitly states that the standard of solemnity is that a reasonably man would suppose the oath taker to mean what he or she is saying.

The problem with this is that I can believe a judge – who is presumably used to making difficult decisions – may be able to decide objectively whether an oath-taking is solemn or not. And most reasonable people would agree with his decision in most cases. The objective judgment of sincerity is quite another matter.

Sincerity is an entirely internal matter which happens inside the person’s brain. This is not a problem in the mainland legal system, where the contents of the suspect’s brain can be extracted by pushing toothpicks under his fingernails or threatening to shoot his wife. I do wonder whether it can be reliably detected by a Hong Kong judge watching a video.

After all most of us accept civic obligations to the SAR and China as arising out of the current constitutional situation. Looking at the sort of time-servers and sycophants who occupy the pro-government side of Legco we must suspect that if by some awful international error Hong Kong had been returned in 1997 to Russia instead of China, they would now be willing to swear undying loyalty to the Soviet Socialist Republic of Hong Kong. Like, whatever.

Mr Au avoided this potential problem by treating solemnity and sincerity as the same thing. I do not think that produced any injustice in the instant cases. Clearly if a swearer has tripped over the accuracy and solemnity requirement it does not matter too much whether we also diagnose insincerity or not.

Will there, though, be future cases in which the newly minted legislator has taken the oath with all the accuracy and solemnity that a reasonably law can require, but is still not the sort of person the Liaison Office wishes to see in Legco? I do not look forward happily to the spectacle of a government lawyer arguing that a legislator should be disqualified because “he took the oath but he can’t have meant it because look what he said last year”.

Curiously absent from the proceedings is the one group of people who are the losers in all this, and who happen to include me. The purpose of electing legislators is not to provide high quality advice to the government or to provide a stimulating and fulfilling career to aspiring young politicians. It is to ensure that the population of Legco reflects in its views the preferences of the electorate.

My constituency is supposed to have seven representatives. We now have only five. The one I voted for last time is out. The one I voted for the time before is out. The one I voted for in the by-election in between was not even allowed to run.

As an elector I am I think entitled to feel that I have been stiffed by the system. Of course I can if I feel strongly take legal action to compel the government to get on with a by-election or two. Why should I be deterred by the thought that the Department of Justice will claim several million bucks in costs if it wins? And if I win all I get is an election. Sorry. I have an invalid dog to support.


Generally we are urged to welcome new technology. Indeed this sometimes seems a bit indiscriminate. After all some technologies in the end don’t make it. Anyone who bought a digital radio in Hong Kong in the last few years, for example, wasted his money. However there is one exception to this rule: new forms of fun, and especially new forms of fun involving sex.

There is already a Foundation for Responsible Robotics, which published a “consultation paper” in May (no doubt the Hong Kong newspapers had more urgent things to worry about) warning that “sex robots could increase the objectification of women, alter perceptions of consent and be used to satisfy desires that would otherwise be illegal.” Why the last one is considered a problem I am not sure.

But the foundation is just warming up for its part in the prohibition campaign. There is also already a Campaign against Sex Robots, led by a lady anthropologist at De Montfort University (no I didn’t know either – it used to be Leicester Poly) who is a Senior Research Fellow in the Ethics of Robotics.

The only thing there isn’t yet is an actual sex robot. For a video survey of the current technology look here: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/video/2017/apr/27/rise-of-the-sex-robots-video

A little history may be in order. People have always found artificial substitutes if they did not for some reason have access to willing partners of the opposite, or the same, sex. Many years ago I reviewed a history book called “Sex and Empire” about the sexual aspects of the empire on which the sun never set. One thing in the book, I noted, had puzzled me – a saying current in the 19th century Indian civil service which went “women for duty, boys for pleasure, melons for sheer delight”. How, I wondered, did you achieve “sheer delight” with a piece of fruit.

The only local response was from a retired civil servant, who wrote to the newspaper in which this piece was published saying that in his youth he had been treated to a longer version of the “women, boys, melons” trilogy, which also included a tribute to the erotic possibilities of goats. However I also sent a copy of my piece to the author, thinking that his cutting service, if he had one, probably did not cover Hong Kong. And in due course I got a polite reply, including an extract from another book explaining the melon matter. Apparently you take your melon, dig a hole in it approximately the dimensions of a … banana, prop it up (some people build a special tripod for this purpose) and give it all you’ve got, as it were. It is also possible to use other fruits. In the French Foreign Legion they do it with cacti. Well, they’re tough guys.

When I was a student “love dolls” occasionally appeared as props in rag floats and such like. These were inflatable women, or if you prefer woman-shaped balloons. They were always dressed, at least in the bikini bottom area, presumably to conceal the comparatively elaborate tailoring between the legs. The rest of the doll was not convincing at all.

The modern version has abandoned the inflatable technology. You now get a metal frame covered in silicon. The leading US version is called a Realdoll and it is eye-wateringly expensive: https://www.realdoll.com/. Cheaper version made in China here: http://mxdolls.com/. There are several Japanese manufacturers. Here is one: http://www.japaneserealdoll.com/.

As you can see they are quite realistic, if you are comparing them with a balloon. If you are comparing them with a real person, the chest to waist ratio is a bit implausible. They are dolls, meaning that they only move if you move them. Some people are working on movement. Apparently walking is out of the question because it takes so much battery power, but I suppose in a sex doll walking is not the kind of movement you want. You can now get a talking head for your Realdoll, for the price of a small flat. But nobody is going to mistake the result for a real woman.

That is not necessarily a problem. According to the Daily Telegraph, “Doll brothels already operate in South Korea, Japan and Spain, while the first robotic oral sex coffee shop opened in Paddington, west London, last year.” The mind boggles.

The only controversy about the existing dolls concerns a Japanese version. Japanese sex dolls tend to be small, both because Japanese people live in small flats and because Japanese ladies are generally quite small also. One version is explicitly juvenile. The manufacturer says that possession of one of his creations has enabled him to satisfy urges which would otherwise be illegal, and he recommends them for this purpose to other pedophiles.

This is a hard sell in western countries, where pedophiles occupy the niche once reserved at different periods for Jews, Gipsies, heretics or witches. They allow guilt-free hatred. So anything that helps them tends to get a frosty reception.

Aside from this, though, all the learned attention being devoted to this topic comes from people who don’t know what they are talking about. Because so far, there is nothing to talk about. There are no sex robots and the estimated time frame for something which might fool a pleasure-seeking drunk in the dark is 15-20 years. Some of the authorities, indeed, say that there will never be a sex robot you could mistake for a real person, because this would feel too creepy. So there will always be a sort of deliberate mistake. The Realdoll guy believes this is a non-issue. A doll is a doll, a robot is a robot and a person is a person. Users will know.

The objections to sex robots, which I suppose are also objections to sex dolls, and perhaps to modified melons, come in three categories. The first is that people who have tried it with a robot will lose interest in the real thing. The second, somewhat contradictory argument, is that if people do with robots things which would be illegal with humans they may get used to the idea and more likely to do the real thing. The third is that female robots will change some men’s views of female people.

These are no doubt serious arguments. What bothers me is the willingness of some people to leap from the suspicion that the future may contain some dark possibility to the idea that there should be an immediate ban, or failing that. “Maybe people who want to buy sex robots need to present the agreement of a couple of doctors, before they are judged emotionally restricted enough to need to retreat to such an inhuman fantasy.”

One of the advances painfully achieved in the second half of the 20th century was the general acceptance of the idea that what people get up to in their own bedrooms, alone or with consenting adults, is their own business. This is a good idea. I have no personal interest in dolls, robots, inflatables, melons or cacti as an aid to play. But if people want to explore technological variations on the traditional paths to pleasure that is their right.

And I am a bit suspicious about the motives of professors sounding off in this area. If you are tired of labouring in the obscurity of anthropology,  ethics or robotics, do not despair. You too can become a public figure by saying something provocative and opinionated about sex.




This one came up last month. A lady called Sze Chu-ming appealed against her conviction by a magistrate for assault. The appeal succeeded. So far so routine. As is customary these days the proceedings had taken a long time. The alleged offence took place in 2015. Justice delayed is justice denied. Don’t hold your breath.

Now some odd things about this one. The alleged victim, one Cheung Lai-ching, is a member of a mysterious organisation called the Hong Kong Youth Care Association. This association does not seem to spend a great deal of time on youth, or indeed on care. Its main activity is to set up banners and loudspeakers in selected spots to disrupt efforts by members and supporters of the Falun Gong to put their views before the public. The association was established in 2012, apparently for this specific purpose.

Readers in distant countries may need to be reminded that the Falun Gong is a therapeutic meditation practice which is banned in China. Falun Gong supporters claim that those of its members who are still in China are abused by the authorities. This is plausible, in the light of the way the authorities treat other people they disapprove of. It is and has always been legal in Hong Kong, without giving rise to any harms or complaints, so claims that the Falun Gong is an “evil cult” appear without foundation.

Visitors to Hong Kong will from time to time be greeted in busy areas by displays and playlets illustrating the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners on the mainland. Nearby, indeed as close as possible, they will often also find the Youth Care Association people displaying hostile banners and trying to make so much noise that nobody can hear anything. On some occasions, the resulting situation gets tense. This has happened before. A few years ago there was a major row about a schoolteacher who was filmed scolding the police in fruity terms for protecting the Youth Carers from indignant passers-by who wanted them to shut up.

However the case of the SAR v Sze shone a new light on this ongoing public order problem. Ms Cheung, the alleged victim, had featured, the court was told, in 92 police reports in the last three years. In 38 of those cases Ms Cheung was the person who called the police. Records of most of the cases had been destroyed, presumably because they did not come to anything. Of the six survivors, five were complaints against Falun Gong members alleging nuisance, street obstruction and criminal damage.

The judge also noted that in previous trials his brother judges has found Ms Cheung an “unreliable witness” motivated by hostility to the Falun Gong. Unreliable witness is the courteous legal term for “liar”.

So justice was served in the end. I am left, though, with a lot of questions. The first one, of course, is how did all this get past the original magistrate. Maybe some of the points raised on appeal were not put before him, but still. The judge hearing the appeal found that the evidence was insufficient. It used to be said that it was better 100 guilty people should go free than one innocent person should be convicted. This quote is not much honoured in local magistrates’ courts, I fear.

One also wonders what was going through the mind of the person who decided this prosecution should go ahead. The alleged injury was trivial, the evidence was flaky, and the situation was one of those public confrontations which often end in huffing, puffing and jostling. I take it from the mass disappearance of Ms Cheung’s police records that most of her complaints came to nothing. Why was this one singled out?

Then there is the matter of Ms Cheung’s enthusiasm for the emergency services. I think there should be some way of discouraging people from engaging in provocative behaviour and then calling the police with spurious complaints as a way of giving their adversaries a hard time. Wasting police time is an offence and some people would regard 38 calls to the 999 desk in three years as a good example of it. This last weekend we have seen protests summarily banned on the grounds that they might provoke a violent response from bystanders. Are we perhaps encouraging violent bystanders too much, and doing too little to protect non-violent speakers? Or are we now enjoying freedom of speech with Chinese characteristics?

This question has lately become so mainstream that social scientists and politicians are weighing in. Unfortunately much of the discussion has been along rather crude lines. The matter in dispute is whether Hong Kong youngsters consider their identity to be Chinese, and if not, is this a problem?

Mr C Y Leung’s offering on the subject was, like so much that falls from that particular pair of lips, difficult to square with reality. Governments, he said, would regard you as Chinese if you had a Chinese name and face, whatever passport you held. This is, to put it politely, not the way it usually works. A passport is an official document issued by a government, and governments are of all possibilities the one most likely to take it seriously. Indeed those comfortable countries whose passports are regarded as most attractive often make a point of disregarding the ethnic origin of their citizens, and many of them have laws against discrimination on that basis. I wondered, actually, if Mr Leung’s remarks had been distorted in translation and he had actually meant “the government”, rather than governments in general. For there is one government of which Mr Leung’s observation is palpably true: the PRC regards all ethnic Chinese as subject to its control, wherever they may be and whatever passport they carry. Such people can be kidnapped in foreign countries and carted back to the People’s Paradise, to face charges relating to “crimes” which were not offences in the place where they were committed. In the eyes of their government Chinese people are not served, they are owned.

Possibly sensing that his master’s voice had been enjoying one of its less lucid moments, Michael Chugani repeated the point, but with a subtle difference. In Mr Chugani’s version it was not governments which would refuse to recognise a different national identity from that of your face, but “other people”. Apparently Mr Chugani’s fellow-Americans often insist that he is “really” Indian because he looks that way. This seemed rather a poor argument for recognising yourself as Chinese rather than a Hong Konger. After all many Americans are lamentably misinformed about “abroad”. One gets used to explaining that Hong Kong is not in Japan. Also it is generally considered that the main determinant of a person’s identity should be that person’s choice, and other people’s failure to recognise that choice should be resisted rather than appeased.

But this is all rather unsubtle. It assumes that identity is something unitary, logically consistent and permanent. This seems rather unlikely. In tolerant countries, after all, one person does not have one identity. He or she has a variety of identities in different contexts. Someone who is born and raised in London, and spent most of his life there, will certainly identify himself as a Londoner. That does not mean he is a traitor or a seeker of independence. In the World Cup he supports England, in the Olympics he supports Great Britain, and in the Ryder Cup he supports Europe. Besides this geographical onion, she may have other loyalties or memberships. Some of these are within national boundaries, like the National Trust or the Boy Scouts of America, while some of them cross it, like the Catholic Church or the Freemasons. In Hong Kong this is still allowed. It is an arrangement we rarely think about. We have multiple identities which are not mutually exclusive. Someone who thinks he is a Hong Konger may also consider himself Chinese, Muslim, and a member of Amnesty International. Asking people which identity they prefer is asking for trouble. The answer depends on the time and the context. Consequently we should not draw too many conclusions from it. A young Hong Konger who considers Hong Kong her most important identity is not necessarily rejecting all the alternatives out of hand.

Totalitarian regimes are different, alas. Multiple loyalties are not allowed. We are supposed to have “Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuhrer” as one unhappy precedent had it. One people, one country, one leader. And this trinity, like its religious counterpart, is not supposed to be divisible. It has to be swallowed whole. If you do not admire the leader you are also betraying the country and the people. The difference between Hong Kong and China on this point was not covered in the Basic Law. I suppose the drafters thought that having provided for a high degree of autonomy and capitalism continuing for 50 years they had dealt with the matter. Clearly Mr Leung has had the necessary brain surgery to meet the standards of devotion required. The prospect of the rest of us having to go the same way may explain some of the disillusionment among young people contemplating a future here.

In fairness to Messrs Leung and Chugani we should perhaps note that ethnic identities have a unique characteristic: they are the first thing people see. When you meet a stranger, before either of you says anything, and without conscious effort on either side, you have an initial impression of gender, age, ethnicity and perhaps other superficial things. People I meet in lifts occasionally comment on my height. If you met President Obama in the street the first thing that would register would be that he is black, more or less. A man interviewing potential students is deceiving himself if he thinks he does not notice that some of the ladies are pretty. This initial impression quickly fades into the background as you get to know other things about the person concerned. Your first unconscious thought may be “This kid is Chinese”. But once you have discovered that he is a gay vegetarian anarchist who supports Manchester United the ethnic classification is overwhelmed. Of course there are people for whom it remains a problem. No matter how well they know the person the ethnic category still obliterates everything else. This is known as racism and it should be opposed, not accepted as an unavoidable fact of life.

Sometimes two decisions, made separately by different people but trying to apply the same rules, come out with disturbingly different results.

Consider two announcements which both came out last week, about the aftermath of unexpected collapses of part of buildings. One of these concerned the collapse of one wall of the Police Married Inspectors Quarters Building, which is part of the old Central Police Station. In fact it is among the oldest parts; construction started in 1862. The wall collapsed on May 29 last year.

The other case which came to fruition at the same time concerned the roof of the Chan Tai Ho Multi-purpose Hall, which is part of a sports centre at the City University. The whole roof fell down on May 28 last year. The hall was practically brand new.

Both these cases had been the subject of inquiries, the conclusions of which were in due course transmitted to the Department of Justice. And the department has decided, it announced last week, that the contractor who was in charge of the married quarters work will be prosecuted. The first charge will be carrying out building works in a manner “likely to cause a risk of injury to any person.” On the other hand, the Justice people have decided that in the City U case “no prosecution was warranted”, according to the Standard.

And where, you wonder, is the justice in that? It may be that there are further nuances in the Married Quarters matter which will emerge in court. But on the face of it the contractor seems to have been rather unlucky. Dismantling or renovating a building more than 150 years old is always going to be tricky. There are probably no plans, and if there are plans the building will have been modified, and it was certainly not designed with a century and a half in mind.

Certainly the falling wall presented a risk of injury, but this was not entirely surprising. The risks involved were known and resulted in precautions not found in City U sports halls – the public were not admitted, workers were expected to wear hard hats, and so on.

The City U situation is rather different. The sports centre was in use while the university decided to add a lawn to the roof. Students played underneath it oblivious of the risk to which they were exposed. Indeed the university was in a sense lucky. If it had not been for the alertness and initiative of a security guard who organised an evacuation just in time, there would have been many people under the roof when it succumbed to Sir Isaac Newton’s great invention and tried to merge with the floor. If the roof had chosen another time to demote itself the casualties could have been in three figures.

Now I realise that there are regular arguments in educational circles about whether and if so to what extent universities are in loco parentis – whether they have parental or pastoral obligations as well as academic ones. But I think everyone who has discussed this would agree that universities do at least have an obligation to provide premises in which the roofs stay where roofs should be, rather than descending on the defenceless heads of their students.

The inquiry into the City U roof collapse attributed it to three causes: “the screeding of the roof structure was thicker than the original design, laying of greenery cover on the roof, and localised water ponding on the greenery cover.” This is not very helpful. I presume that the heavier screeding was necessary to support the greenery. And once the lawn was up there it should not have been difficult to predict that it would get wet in wet weather and it would then weigh more than it did dry. In fact, to put the matter in plain English, it appears that the City U put a lawn on the roof without giving due consideration to whether the roof was strong enough to support it.

City U has a Campus Development Office – duties “providing comprehensive services covering campus master planning and space allocation, capital and renovation projects, repair and maintenance of building services and estates of the entire campus.” The office has seven sections, supervising 17 “units” which in turn overlook 18 teams. Plenty of relevant talent there, then.

The university also has a Department of Physics and Materials Science, and a Division of Building Science and Technology. So the roof in question was surrounded by a great many people who knew, or should have known, that putting a roof on your garden is much easier than putting a garden on your roof.

It appears from the comments supplied by Edward Yiu, who represents the relevant functional constituency in Legco, that the decision not to prosecute arises from a “grey area as to whether green roofs are building works that require plans to be submitted to the Buildings Department.” But if this explains the Department of Justice’s action, or non-action, then the department is surely taking too legalistic a view of the matter.

The question is not whether sabotaging your own building requires the approval of the Buildings Department, but whether it is legal to turn a boring hall roof into an exciting death trap waiting for a Black rainstorm to spring it. If the government cannot be bothered to consider this, why are harmless householders all over Hong Kong routinely threatened with prosecution for minor changes to their buildings which – if they threaten anyone – threaten only themselves?

The City U students were lucky this time. Nobody was under the roof when it came down. But the way we prevent serious accidents is by taking narrow escapes seriously. I do not doubt that if a few students had been squashed the Department of Justice would have found a way to swing into action and prosecute someone for something. So as traditional school reports used to put it, they “could do better if they tried.”