January 10, 2018 / 3:07 PM / a year ago

Hong Kong's legal chief vows not to resign over unauthorised home improvements

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong’s new justice secretary on Wednesday vowed not to resign despite a scandal over unauthorised structures in her home that called into question her integrity as the Asian financial hub’s top legal official.

FILE PHOTO - Secretary of Justice Teresa Cheng attends a ceremony to mark the beginning of the legal year in Hong Kong, China January 8, 2018. REUTERS/Bobby Yip/File Photo

Critics say the perception that Teresa Cheng, a lawyer and chartered civil engineer by training, knowingly broke the law could further damage waning public confidence in Hong Kong’s vaunted rule of law.

Cheng, who only took office last Saturday, apologised for what she called “an oversight”, saying all but one of the structures were already in place when she bought the three-storey house in 2008.

“This particular incident has given me a lot to learn and actually allows me to strengthen myself in performing my duties as the Secretary for Justice in the future,” Cheng told a news conference. “I won’t resign.”

People in space-starved Hong Kong are highly sensitive to the issue of unauthorised structures, with wealthy home owners often opting for such additions to optimise space.

Similar scandals have hit other senior officials, such as former leader Leung Chun-ying, and former chief secretary Henry Tang, whose quest to be Hong Kong’s next leader suffered from 2012 revelations of his “palatial” basement and wine cellar.

“It isn’t befitting for a Secretary of Justice who is considered a guardian angel of the rule of law,” said pro-democracy politician and barrister Alan Leong, while adding that illegal construction was not a grave crime.

Cheng’s office made no immediate response to emailed questions from Reuters.

Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam has defended Cheng publicly, saying she had not covered up anything.

The rule of law and an independent judiciary have long been seen as key pillars in the success of the former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997 and enjoys a high degree of autonomy under a “one country, two systems” arrangement.

In recent years, however, China has weighed into the city’s legal system on a number of occasions, such as a legal interpretation that led to the disqualification of opposition lawmakers from the legislature.

Several cases in which democracy activists and police officers were jailed have also provoked criticism of judges. Hundreds of lawyers held two rare protest marches in recent years to voice concerns about China’s interference.

The Buildings Department told Reuters its inspectors were initially barred from entering Cheng’s nearly $3-million villa when the scandal first broke.

But when allowed in on a repeat visit on Tuesday, the inspectors discovered nine unauthorised structures, including a basement, a swimming pool and a rooftop den with French windows in Cheng’s house and an adjoining one owned by her husband.

The homes of Hong Kong’s new top legal official, Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng, and her husband Otto Poon, where illegal structures including glasshouse, swimming pool and basement were discovered, are seen in Hong Kong, China January 10, 2018. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

Land records reviewed by Reuters show Cheng bought the property through a company called Sparkle Star Development Limited. Her husband, Otto Poon, who lives next door, bought his house in 2012. They married in 2016.

Cheng said a rectification proposal was submitted to the Buildings Department on Wednesday, adding that neither she nor her husband, a past president of the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers, was trained to identify illegal structures.

“One doesn’t look at a thing and know whether it’s illegal,” said Cheng, who has been a member of government-linked housing panels and co-authored a book on construction law.

Additional reporting by Chermaine Lee and Carmel Yang; Editing by Clarence Fernandez

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