When I was still at school my father still nurtured some hopes (later dashed, alas) of me eventually wishing to succeed him in charge of the family firm. As a result I was often treated to discussions of the various issues which crop up in the running of a Small or Medium Enterprise, and among these was the question of what to do about bad debts.

The basic principle here is that there is no point in pursuing people vigorously if, for whatever reason, they have no money. Various homely metaphors about the flogging of dead horses and the impossibility of getting blood out of a stone were deployed in this connection. I must admit that my father occasionally made exceptions for people he thought had deliberately incurred debts which they had no hope of paying. But generally the reason why the courts are not clogged up with business people pursuing money from small debtors is that there is no point in pursuing something which is not there.

Baggio Leung and Yau Wai-ching. File photo: Bobby Yip/Reuters.

This point has apparently not made its way to the Legco Commission, an administrative body with a majority of the People’s puppets, which is proposing to sue two disqualified legislators for, in round numbers, a million dollars each. This is the sum in wages and legitimate expenses which the pair received while they, and the Legco secretariat, thought that having been elected they were in fact councillors.

Now let me beg the reader to disregard, for a change, the question whether he approves of the politics of the two individuals concerned, or their variations on the loyalty oath, or the “interpretation” of the relevant parts of the Basic Law.

File photo: In-Media.

Consider, for a moment, what you would do if you had employed someone, and paid them, supposing that you had a legitimate contract to that effect, only to be told after a few months by a judge that the contract was void for some reason and you could not legally employ that person. Would you expect the person concerned to pay back the entire total of wages which you had paid, and he or she had accepted, on the assumption that the payment was legitimate? Let us go a bit further. If you were aware that your former employee had no hope of repaying the money, having spent it on the usual family expenses as one does with one’s wages, would you sue him for the money anyway?

I think most people would answer “no” to these questions. And even if they didn’t, we should also consider that the pursuit of a debt which is not going to be repaid is not costless. The Legco Commission is, apparently, willing to blow quite a lot of cash in legal expenses in a vain pursuit which will, no doubt, be presented to the public as an attempt to save their money. As if councillors, having thrown billions of dollars into various infrastructural extravaganzas, had the habit of being concerned about a million or two.

Photo: Catherine Lai/HKFP.

The two councillors, Baggio Leung and Yau Wai-ching, were duly elected and accepted the council’s money in good faith. There is no suggestion that they spent it on anything inappropriate. Unlike, perhaps, the vast majority of councillors they do not, I suppose, have the faintest hope of coming up with a million bucks at short notice. Fund-raising for the purpose of giving the Legco Commission its pound of flesh is unlikely to be a great success. The Commission might also consider the effect on its reputation of a display of politically-motivated vindictiveness.

Actually, if it matters, the current fashion for having elected legislators disqualified by judges is going to save Legco quite a lot of money. We now have six vacant seats. The Chief Executive has promised that there will be no manipulation of the by-elections to produce particular results, but she also said that organising them would take some time – like six months. This means that the council will save $3.6 million in wages and medical allowances alone. Come on people. You can afford to be generous.

Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.