Court to rule on shrine status

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 July, 2011, 12:00am


A court will rule on whether to allow a legal challenge over the status of a converted building that contains niches for urns. A judge reserved judgment yesterday on whether the building should be classified a shrine or a columbarium.

The owners say the Yuen Long building, which they have named The Shrine, is just that and is therefore allowed under planning rules for the area.

'A shrine is a shrine is a shrine,' lawyer Denis Cheng, for the company, told Mr Justice Johnson Lam Man-hon yesterday. 'It is not a columbarium.'

But the government said The Shrine cannot be a shrine because it is used to house funeral urns. It is a columbarium, the government maintained, which is not permitted in the village-type development zone.

The arguments were put forward in an application seeking leave for a judicial review brought by subsidiaries of the owner, Hong Kong Life Group.

In the writ, the six subsidiaries, naming the director of planning as respondent, wants the Court of First Instance to quash a government decision that the business is unauthorised and to grant an injunction to prevent further government action against it.

Cheng said that under the outline zoning plan for The Shrine's vicinity, shrines are always permitted. All complaints regarding the structure of the house had been addressed, Cheng added.

'The court will see the structures are used for a columbarium use,' said Johnny Mok SC, for the director of planning. A licence fee for a niche, he noted, could go for HK$54,700.

According to the writ, on October 22 the Planning Department issued an enforcement notice ordering Hong Kong Life - which converted the house in Ngau Tam Mei, Yuen Long, into a repository for human ashes - to stop running the business. Officials said it was an unauthorised development.

The company accused officials of failing to appreciate the real nature of the 'shrine business', saying planners wrongly concluded that the building was used for columbarium and storage purposes.

The writ says 'the object of worship or devotion or veneration in a shrine is not confined to a saint or deity, but can be a person', and suggests it is a Chinese custom for people to worship the dead by setting up shrines at home or in other places.

The Planning Department said that a shrine is a place or structure other than a building for worship, while a columbarium is any place or vault with niches for urns containing the ashes of cremated bodies.

Under the plan columbariums may be authorised but subject to conditions, the writ contends.

Lam reserved judgment at the end of the hearing.