Rimsky Yuen - cool, calm and collecting critics

Some say he's a hired gun, and that his mainland ties are influencing his decisions. But justice minister Rimsky Yuen is taking it all in his stride

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 January, 2013, 4:21am

Since taking office less than six months ago, Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung has quickly become one of the city's most politicised - and besieged - justice ministers in recent memory.

For more than a month, Yuen has been under sustained attack from legal scholars and politicians, who accuse him of acting as a "hired gun" for the government. They were outraged by his request, on December 13, to the city's top court for a referral to Beijing to clarify the meaning of its 1999 interpretation of Article 24 of the Basic Law, which deals with permanent residency.

The government wants a clarification because of a surge in the number of mainland women giving birth in Hong Kong, where their children get residency, and challenges by domestic helpers to the law preventing them from seeking right of abode.

Critics say the move has unnecessarily created a political dilemma for local judges. They fear a repeat of the 1999 interpretation when, after the top court ruled against it on right of abode, the government asked Beijing to directly interpret the Basic Law - a move many said jeopardised judicial independence.

But Yuen, despite all the scathing and hostile comments, has remained calm and neutral in front of the cameras, repeatedly defending his decision. Sharing his thoughts for the first time since the storm began, Yuen told the South China Morning Post none of it had dented his confidence in his ability to carry out the job of being the city's top government lawyer.

"Lively public debates, or even controversies, are not difficult to understand, bearing in mind the nature of the issue and also the current political climate," Yuen said in a written response. "The recent controversies over the Basic Law clarification and public criticism would naturally create pressure. However, pressure is part of the job. Different jobs would have different forms of pressure. For instance, one also faces pressure when acting as a barrister."

Yuen is known for his cool head by those who have worked with him in the legal profession.

Senior Counsel Warren Chan, who has known Yuen for 25 years, described the justice minister as "polite but very firm". "I know Rimsky on a professional basis, not on a social basis … I have no doubt as to his integrity as a lawyer. I have no doubt about his written work, which is of very high quality. Rimsky is a very gentle, polite and soft-spoken person. But he is not someone who can be easily bullied," Chan said.

Yuen was regarded as a high-flyer during his time as one of the city's top barristers. In 2003, at the relatively young age of 38, the civil legal practitioner was appointed senior counsel.

In 2007, Yuen was elected chairman of the Bar Association.

But his acceptance the following year of an appointment as delegate to the Guangdong Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference caused consternation in the legal community here. It was feared his CPPCC duties would conflict with his leadership of the Bar Association.

This concern hasn't gone away. His ties with the mainland are still, for some, a reason to doubt his political neutrality in making legal decisions.

When Yuen took office last July, he pledged to do his best to resolve the right of abode issues within the local judicial system before he would even consider seeking an interpretation of the Basic Law from Beijing.

His critics say he has not kept his word, and are dismayed at how quickly, and lightly, he turned to Beijing for an answer - albeit dressed up as a "clarification" and carried out indirectly via the Court of Final Appeal.

They also claim the justice minister is engaged in a political assignment to complete the controversial Article 23 legislation on national security - something Yuen has strenuously denied.

Chan dismissed such criticism as unfair. "Some people label him as having a 'red' background or even as a 'hired gun' [for the government]," Chan said. "Is it fair to label a person in such a way and then to attack his integrity in the name of defending the core values of Hong Kong? Isn't [the act of attacking] contrary to the core values of Hong Kong?"

Assistant law professor Eric Cheung Tat-ming, of the University of Hong Kong, is one of the most outspoken critics of Yuen's move to get the National People's Congress Standing Committee to clarify the Court of Final Appeal's 1999 decision. He has also been friends with Yuen for nearly 30 years. "My remarks about Yuen came from my serious concerns about the threat to the rule of law," said Cheung, who met Yuen in 1983, when they were students at the HKU law school.

Cheung remembers Yuen as "reliable and hardworking" at university. "Rimsky was rather low-profile. He was hardworking in both schoolwork and student activities. But he was not a bookworm," Cheung said.

The justice minister may be dealing with the bigger picture now, but he says he misses life as a barrister, and the thrill of courtroom battle. "In particular, I miss the time of acting as an advocate in court," he said. "However, there is give and take in every situation. But for the fact that I have taken up this role as secretary for justice, I would not have the chance to come across a lot of matters that I am now handling.

"As a private practitioner, I could decide on the type and number of cases that I wanted to take up … However, as secretary for justice, there is no choice of cases. I also need to participate in meetings that concern general policymaking."

Taking on the justice minister job was not an easy decision. Yuen says he spent "a fair bit of time" considering Leung Chun-ying's offer for him to fill the post.

"What attracted me … is the nature of the job and the challenges ahead. Fighting cases in court is very interesting. However, at the same time, I am also interested in participating in legal policy formulation," Yuen said. But above all, Yuen has made a pledge to fulfil his constitutional duty to uphold the rule of law in Hong Kong. "I can vow that I and everyone in the Department of Justice want to do that. However, there are bound to be differences of opinion on steps the administration may take. The challenge is not just how to decide which is the best step to take in any given situation, but to explain to the public why that is the best step."


Rimsky Yuen

Age 48

Currently Secretary for Justice


Senior counsel in 2003

Called to the Bar in 1987


Graduated from the University of Hong Kong in 1986 with a Bachelor of Laws