Increasingly, operators and carriers are being investigated and then prosecuted by governmental authorities for suspected infringement of the laws of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. This is because it is difficult to bring the true culprits, foreign importers and exporters, to justice. As a result, it is often the feeder or barge operators, the freight forwarders, ship agents and liner operators based in Hong Kong that bear the brunt.

Although many different laws may be involved, the most common bases for prosecution are the Dutiable Commodities Ordinance (Cap 109), the Import and Export Ordinance (Cap 60), the Protection of Endangered Species of Animals and Plants Ordinance (Cap 586), the Trade Descriptions Ordinance (Cap 362) and the Waste Disposal Ordinance (Cap 354).

How do container operators become enmeshed in such prosecutions? The reason is that the statutory definition of “import” and “export” is usually so wide that the operators – being named as shippers or consignees in ocean bills of lading or appearing as involved parties in cargo manifests – can be regarded as the parties who import and export the cargo in question. As a result, it is the operators who find themselves penalised for the faults or omissions of the actual shippers or cargo interests.

Trade Descriptions Ordinance

Take the Trade Descriptions Ordinance (TDO) as an example. The Ordinance prohibits any person from importing or exporting any goods to which a false trade description or forged trade mark has been applied. Under section 12 , someone who imports or exports such goods commits an offence, unless the statutory defence and exemption apply. The TDO defines “import” to mean “bring, or cause to be brought, into Hong Kong”.

However, one result of these provisions is that carriers who are not cargo owners or interests may become unwilling parties to importing goods into – or exporting goods from – Hong Kong. Operators carrying (or arranging to carry) cargo to or from Hong Kong that is found to bear a false trade description – or forged trademark – risk prosecution by the Customs and Excise Department. This is despite the fact that they are not the actual shippers, consignees or owners of the cargo, and have never seen what is inside the container, cartons or packages.

A TDO charge is often backed up by a prosecution for breach of section 159G of the Crimes Ordinance (Cap 200). Under section 159G, a person who, intending to commit an offence to which the section applies, does an act that is more than merely preparatory to the commission of the offence is guilty of attempting to commit the offence. A person may be guilty of attempting to commit a section 159G-applicable offence even though the facts are such that the commission of the offence is impossible.

Waste disposal

Take another example. The Waste Disposal Ordinance (WDO) provides that someone in Hong Kong who wants to import or export specified kinds of waste must have a permit from the Director of Environmental Protection. (There is an exception in the case of uncontaminated waste that is imported or exported for the purpose of reprocessing, recycling or recovery operations, or of reusing such waste.) The specified waste – detailed in the sixth and seventh schedules to the ordinance – includes certain kinds of scrap of iron, glass waste, solid plastic waste, textile waste, rubber waste and used batteries.

However, if that permit has not been obtained, then anyone who does – or causes or allows another person to do – anything for which such a permit is required commits an offence. They are then liable to a fine of up to HK$200,000 and imprisonment of up to six months for the first offence, and HK$500,000 and two years’ imprisonment for a second or subsequent offence. It is not necessary for the prosecution to prove that the acts or omissions in question were accompanied by any intention, knowledge or negligence on the part of the defendant in respect of any element of the offence.

WDO definitions

The Ordinance defines “importer” and “exporter” as “any person who arranges for waste to be imported/exported”.

“Import into Hong Kong” is defined as meaning “to bring, or cause to be brought, into Hong Kong any waste for the purpose of disposal or reuse in Hong Kong or for the purpose of loading prior to disposal or reuse in an area not under the jurisdiction of any state”.

“Export from Hong Kong” is defined as “to take, or cause to be taken, out of Hong Kong any waste, but does not include a reference to waste which (a) was brought into Hong Kong solely for the purpose of taking it out of Hong Kong; and (b) remained at all times in or on the vessel, aircraft, train or vehicle in or on which it was brought into Hong Kong”.

Likely WDO conviction

So, according to our experience, a freight forwarder/logistic operator who

(1) is named in an ocean bill of lading as shipper and

(2) has been entrusted to carry a “shipper’s seal, load and count” container laden with stacked messy glass waste from cathode ray tubes of waste computer monitors and televisions, without any protection

could be charged with an offence of carrying the waste without permit, contrary to sections 20A(1)(b) and 20E(1)(a) of the Waste Disposal Ordinance.

Demonstrating due care

When charged with an offence, defendants often say in their defence that they did not know, had no reason to suspect and could not with reasonable diligence have discovered that the carriage of the goods was contrary to the laws of Hong Kong. Alternatively, they may argue that they took all reasonable precautions and exercised all due diligence to avoid the commission of the offence. However, it is not easy for carriers to prove this beyond reasonable doubt.

According to our experience, the precautions or standards of care demanded of carriers by the authorities are often onerous and impractical. Indeed, operators and carriers have been convicted of failing to exercise due care because they have failed: 

  • to verify the nature, description and contents of the cargo by attending the stuffing of the cargo at the warehouse or loading ports; 
  • to check the commercial documents sufficiently far in advance; and/or 
  • to inspect the cargo by breaking the seal of the containers in which the cargo is carried. This is despite the fact that the containers in question are marked “Shipper seal, load and count”.

Requiring operators to verify the cargoes at stuffing carries onerous practical and legal implications. For a start, consumers will have to accept higher transport charges. The protection afforded to carriers by international conventions such as the Hague Rules and Hague Visby Rules may also be lost.

Prosecuting locals

At the root of the problem is the difficulty of prosecuting foreign transgressors. Where the shipment is transhipment cargo in Hong Kong, the actual shippers, consignees, cargo interests are overseas entities. The authorities have no jurisdiction and therefore find it very hard to bring these parties within the jurisdiction. At the same time, the authorities are keen to send a message that such infringements will not be tolerated in Hong Kong.

Currently, operators and carriers are being punished for the misconduct, fault or negligence of the actual shippers, consignees or cargo interests. Many sections of the local shipping or transport industry are complaining about this unfair treatment.

The Worldtrans Air-Sea case

Prosecution of these criminal offences is normally heard before the magistrates’ courts and is therefore unreported. In HKSAR v Worldtrans Air-Sea Service Ltd [2004] 11 98 HKCU 1, the appellant appealed to the High Court against its conviction by the magistrates’ court of an offence of attempting to export 14,340 sets of mobile telephone covers, each of which carried a forged trademark, contrary to the Trade Descriptions Ordinance (see sections 12 (1) and (2) as read with section 18(1)) and section 159G of the Crimes Ordinance.

The covers bore a “Nokia” trademark. They appeared to have been manufactured in mainland China and imported into Hong Kong. The appellant was entrusted with forwarding them to Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. The trademark owner was Nokia Corporation, which has its principal place of business in Finland. The prosecution’s case was that the trademark on them was not Nokia’s; they were, in short, pirated goods. The appeal was dismissed by the High Court, which was satisfied that there was a sufficient evidential basis to support the appellant’s conviction. This is despite the fact that the appellant was a logistic forwarder, not the cargo owner.

Little room for manoeuvre

Worse still, the present interpretation of the relevant laws do not really give any leeway to operators involved in transhipment. “Goods in transit” is an exemption to the application of section 12 of the TDO. However, to qualify as “goods in transit”, the goods must be those “brought into Hong Kong solely for the purpose of taking them out of Hong Kong”, and must “remain at all times in or on the vessel or aircraft in or on which they are brought into Hong Kong”.

Cargo is often carried to and from mainland China via Hong Kong. Some merchandise is transloaded to a second-leg vessel in Hong Kong for onward carriage to its destination, while other goods are shipped to their final destination by the same vessel on which they were loaded at the port of loading. Goods that are transloaded or transhipped in Hong Kong do not fall within the “goods in transit” exemption. Further, in a prosecution for attempting to import, the fact that the goods which were to be transloaded to another vessel in Hong Kong have been removed by the Customs & Excise Department from the vehicle which took them into Hong Kong does not render the merchandise “goods in transit”. This is because the goods would (in any event) have had to be removed from the vehicle in order to complete the transloading process (see The Queen v Keening Industrial Ltd CACC000653/1993 date of judgment: 5 January 1995).

Hong Kong is an important transhipment port. If its ranking dropped, then Hong Kong’s status as one of the busiest container ports in the world would vanish.

Impact on operators

Under these circumstances, operators are compelled to defend the charges, thereby incurring significant legal costs. If they simply plead guilty and do not defend the case, they will certainly be fined but – more importantly – they will also acquire a criminal record. With a criminal record, the company will be subject to higher penalties and sentences in future prosecutions.

Considerable inconvenience is also caused to operators. In certain circumstances, government authorities are given statutory power to inspect, seize, remove or detain goods; to stop, board and search vessels or aircrafts; to break open any container; to detain individuals, vessels or aircraft; or to prevent any person from approaching or boarding such vessels or aircraft. All these actions cause considerable inconvenience, loss and damage to the operators.

Under certain ordinances, a person who (without reasonable excuse) wilfully obstructs the relevant authorities in the exercise of their powers or duties – or who wilfully fails to comply with any requirement properly or duly made to him by the authorities – commits an offence. If a body corporate operator is convicted of an offence, then the director, manager, secretary or other similar officer of the operator at the time of the commission of the offence (or any person purporting to act in any such capacity) shall be deemed to be guilty of that offence, unless they prove that the offence was committed without their knowledge or that they exercised all due diligence to prevent the commission of the offence.

It should be remembered that, in the context of a possible criminal prosecution, it is up to the prosecution to prove its case. Defendants have a right to silence and are not obliged to provide information or documents unless specifically required by law. This can often be difficult for companies, as they believe they should always co-operate with the authorities. If operators or their representatives are required to attend interviews by the authorities concerned, they are strongly advised to attend with their legal advisers.