A Savage Beating Unpunished
Hope is a fragile emotion, smashed so easily on the jagged rocks of life. In my last post I wrote with a degree of optimism that the maltreatment of domestic helpers in Hong Kong might just receive a little more attention in future, given a small increase in recent newspaper coverage. And that could still come about, because the case I’m about to describe might yet make the news. We’re working on it, and the circumstances deserve more coverage than I can attract here. But it just won’t come to the attention of the courts.
In early August last year I wrote about an Indonesian domestic helper who came to stay with me and my family after suffering repeated beatings at the hands of her employer’s wife. She was bruised from head to groin and had reported to both a local hospital and the North Lantau police station. We were confident that she would have her day in court, given the evidence of assault, an account of earlier sexual assault by her employer, and a witness not only to her condition every morning, but also to her being forced to work at another premises, outside the scope of her employment contract.
Still, the beating, the abject depression – these things seemed to be the clinchers. After an early start to a labour case against the employer, our friend agreed to put proceedings on hold, on the presumption that a criminal case won against at least one of the people she had worked for would boost the amount of compensation she could receive. If the assault was proven, she could claim for constructive dismissal (circumstances dictating that she leave the employment as though she had been summarily dismissed) and a payout of the remainder of her employment contract.
After five months of investigation the police called our friend today. They had passed the case on to the Department of Justice for assessment but the result was negative. Bruises aside, deep hurt and psychological pain apart, our friend would not have her day in court.
Now that sounds terrible, and indeed it is for her. We’re all benumbed, to be totally honest, but we couldn’t even begin to feel what she’s feeling. Yet in accordance with the logic of the law, perverse as it sometimes is, the Department of Justice seems to be within its rights. All prosecutors, at least in common law systems, reserve the right not to prosecute if they feel they won’t get a conviction. The Department didn’t say that our friend had not been assaulted, and neither did it claim that there was insufficient evidence (that’s a police line in any case). Rather, the written advice was that the evidence was “not strong enough” to go forward with the matter.
It is an unfortunate, and sometimes unconscionable, drawback of any established legal system that public prosecutors need always the faith of the populace. They need to be seen to find the bad guys and throw them away. If, for any reason, a public prosecutor begins to lose cases it brings to court, the populace will lose the capacity to believe that justice is being properly served. But into the cracks fall people like our friend, beaten victims who the prosecutors know have been wronged but who lack the sort of evidence that a judge will look for in forming a verdict.
In this case, although it’s purely speculation, the specific lack that tips the case into the great basket of lost causes seems to be an eye witness to the act of assault itself. Oh, sorry, there was one – but that was the husband and he won’t say a word. And there was an indication from the police, surely not a legal position but indicative of a little extra spice, that the victim had somehow offered an inconsistent statement. That’s not really surprising, because she gave it over 10, yes TEN, hours and the investigating officers were shouting at her at least part of the time.
The longer we help people like our friend, the more painful it becomes. We have small victories, but the logic of life – the emotion, suppositions and knowledge that inhabit our days – is too often defeated by the bleak reason of the law. And, just now, I have no answer for how we can overcome that but to learn, to fail, to change and try again. I call this woman our friend, but in the time she’s been with us she’s become a sister, something of a daughter as well. What can we offer her now? Ourselves, our support, our love. The labour case will start again soon, so we’ll move on with her in hope. Sometimes that’s all you can have.