Rights activist Ho Loy today pulled off an 11th-hour escape from certain bankruptcy, meeting a Department of Justice (DOJ) deadline to pay the final $72,388 outstanding legal costs concerning a Judicial Review (JR) against the decision to cede harbourfront land to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Up until two days ago, Ho said she’d only managed to raise $30,000 of the final demand, payable today, and had “prepared for bankruptcy”. But a last-minute appeal to friends saw the final amount materialise in time. “I had wanted to keep a low profile, but I hadn’t raised enough. And people just rushed in to save me basically,” she says. “I already prepared all the documents for bankruptcy, but thanks to the Hong Kong public, they saved me.”
Ho paid the bill in cash at DOJ’s offices on Battery Path this afternoon.
Ho’s case arose from a JR originally filed by Designing Hong Kong in 2014, protesting the Town Planning Board’s refusal to back down over a decision to mark a prime waterfront location as a closed military area.
According to Designing Hong Kong, and many others protesting the decision, the military re-zoning would “interfere and restrict Hong Kong residents’ right to enjoy the Site, to walk along the Central Harbourfront uninterrupted, as they would be able to do so under the original ‘Open Space’ zoning.”
That JR stalled when the court denied a so-called Protected Costs Order (PCO) to the applicants, meaning all costs – estimated to run to millions or even tens of millions of dollars – could be borne by Designing Hong Kong’s directors. Designing Hong Kong appealed through the courts until a final rejection of the PCO by the Court of Final Appeal in 2018.
At this point Ho Loy applied for Legal Aid to attach herself to the JR, a strategy she said gave the case a better chance of winning the PCO. The Town Planning Board refused consent to allow Ho to join, Designing Hong Kong quit the case to make room for the new challenge and Ho took the matter to court. The case was eventually tossed out, with courts deciding Ho had no right to join and that her application was many years too late.
While Ho was covered by Legal Aid, she says there were “several days” where the DOJ was working on the case before her Legal Aid status was approved. It was these few days which led to a legal bill, “out of the blue”, she says, of $144,776 arriving in November last year. She agreed with DOJ to split the bill into two instalments, the final one due today.
“It is up to them to charge whatever they want to charge, whatever they think is reasonable, and we have no right to reverse or review or make any comment. It is not reasonable,” she says.
The Lantau-based activist, who’s run dozens, if not hundreds, of JRs against demolitions and development over the last few decades, says her days of “JR-ing” are probably behind her now. “I do not have confidence the political and legal system is serving the Hong Kong public. The system is now strange to me, the law is strange to me, we don’t have anything we can really trust.”
Ho says she wanted to join the JR as she believed the harbourfront belongs to the people, and that senior planning officials had made promises regarding an unbroken waterfront. She recalls a public consultation workshop, almost a decade ago, where 200 people gave views on their hopes for the waterfront. “There was already a statement by the government that it should be used as public space. The seafront should be enjoyed by the public.”
She also says the PLA dock does not set the right tone between the Chinese government and Hong Kong society.
“For ten years they closed up the most expensive part of Hong Kong and didn’t allow the public to use, just grow weeds there… what do you want the public to feel about the military? It’s not the right atmosphere between the government of China and the Hong Kong public. Even though they have the right to use that pier, they do not need to position themselves as untouchable like that,” she says.