New World pair ask court to block testimony

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 July, 2009, 12:00am

Two New World group executives have begun court action to avoid testifying this week before a Legislative Council inquiry into the developer's employment of former housing director Leung Chin-man.

New World China Land chairman Henry Cheng Kar-shun and executive director Stewart Leung Chi-kin filed an application for judicial review in the High Court, arguing that their reputations and civil rights - and an ongoing legal battle with the government - would be trampled by the Legco investigation.

The pair's 33-page application for judicial review, dated Friday, says: 'The applicants will face the real risk of being prosecuted and losing their liberty and freedom, together with the inevitable grave damage to [their] reputation caused by the bringing of such prosecution.'

The New World executives testified twice before the inquiry in April. Legislators have warned they could face arrest if they fail to answer a summons to appear again.

Ronny Tong Ka-wah, a barrister and a member of the inquiry, said the legislature's power of investigation could be greatly limited if the court sided with the pair.

New World China Land hired Mr Leung in August last year, 19 months after he retired, but he quit less than two weeks after taking up the post of vice-chairman and executive director amid a public furore. Critics said it raised questions of collusion.

The select committee began its hearings in February. It is investigating why the government approved Mr Leung's job with the developer. One of the factors it is considering is Mr Leung's role in the government's cut-price sale of Hunghom Peninsula, an unoccupied harbourfront housing estate, to a consortium including a New World subsidiary.

In their application to the court, Mr Cheng and Mr Leung argue that demanding documents, and forcing the New World executives to testify, about the purchase of the estate is illegal and goes well beyond the inquiry's mandate.

'The focus of the select committee's inquiry is intended to be the proper functioning of the government ... [it is] not directed to an inquiry into the conduct of New World China Land Limited, or individuals associated with it or its parent company,' their submission says.

It also says several committee members have directed a 'constant stream of prejudicial comments and personal attacks' against the two executives. It was obvious they 'had already come to a preconceived judgment against the applicants', the filing said.

The pair want the court to quash an order forcing their appearance. It also wants the hearings adjourned until a legal battle between First Star Development, the New World subsidiary that bought Hunghom Peninsula, and the government has been settled. The company filed suit in July 2003 alleging it incurred losses when the Housing Authority froze the sale of flats at the estate.

Legislators said the application would delay the inquiry, but were optimistic the court would throw it out.

Democrat Lee Wing-tat, deputy chairman of the panel, said: 'We do not expect our inquiry to be held up indefinitely.'

Fellow member Mr Tong said: 'Without their evidence, we might not get a full picture of the saga and it might not be fair to Leung Chin-man.'