Rule of law best option for Mei Foo protesters

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 April, 2011, 12:00am

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Development Hong Kong-style is such that, day-to-day, there is no certainty about our surroundings in all but the most exclusive areas. Where there may now be peace, tranquility and an all-important view, there could arise tomorrow yet another towering block of flats and shops that bring noise, bustle and nothing but windows and walls to look at. It is a prospect faced by hundreds of residents of a private estate in Mei Foo who are fighting construction of a high-rise building on a site just metres from their homes. The government says the project is lawful but the homeowners claim otherwise, leaving open the possibility of a judicial review against the plans - for which the protesters can at least be comforted by our rule of law.

Residents of phase eight of the Mei Foo Sun Chuen estate contend they believed the 1,350-square-metre lot was government land and would not be developed. They say they were not aware that a land exchange offer made by officials had been rejected by the owner. The planned 20-storey tower, utilising unused property density potential, would block views and occupy part of a private street that they use and have maintained. Their protests and rallies have stalled construction, but given the government's standpoint, resorting to the law is their most viable and sensible option.

They are fortunate they live in a city where the rule of law is observed, sturdy and protected. It fares well when compared to other parts of the world where common law is also practised. Generally, our judges and their rulings are well respected, while our lawyers have high standards. There is a distinct separation of power between the judiciary and the legislature, with judges being clearly independent. And common law brings with it the principle of precedence to guide judges when making rulings on similar cases. The Mei Foo residents have been given hope from a recent judgment on plans to develop a site in North Point. Arguments made by a company that it could make use of unused development rights to build on the land were, in that case, rejected by the Court of First Instance. The flat owners in Mei Foo had been resorting to extreme protest measures to air their grievances after talks with officials failed to resolve their demands. They have been monitoring the site at all times of day and night and blocking construction trucks and workers. A rally at the weekend ended with homeowners, many of them elderly, lying in the street outside the site. Through the legal system, they have a dignified approach and the possibility of a black-and-white outcome.

There is one black mark against our system - the difficulty in gaining access to legal aid. Well trained and highly professional lawyers are expensive to hire, which makes fighting cases a costly business. Hong Kong's legal aid is of a high quality, but it is not easily accessible. Middle-class citizens like those living at the estate generally have difficulty qualifying. With one resident having been granted legal assistance, though, plans are being drawn up to seek a judicial review.

Most of us do not think twice about the rule of law. We are aware of its existence and that it is protected by the Basic Law, but beyond that, its importance goes unnoticed by the majority. Yet it is paramount to our way of life, providing a means of fairly resolving disputes and preventing arbitrary interference by the government, or the rich or powerful in our affairs. It is the essential check and balance for a city where there is so much development, construction and renovation.