Justice chief Elsie Leung Oi-sie yesterday vigorously defended the legal system in the first three years of the SAR. She said the right of abode saga showed the Basic Law provided stronger guarantees of rights than did colonial laws. In a speech entitled 'The first three years of the SAR', she argued the common law system and constitutional rights enshrined in the post-handover charter had been better protected than before the handover. 'Some people have alleged that the common law system is under threat in Hong Kong. I do not believe that to be the case. On the contrary, I believe the common law is better protected under the Basic Law than before reunification,' she told a Hong Kong Democratic Foundation lunch. Miss Leung said common law principles had been vulnerable to legislative abolition in pre-handover Hong Kong. She said it was not until 1991 that the Letters Patent - the governing constitutional instrument - was amended to prevent laws being enacted that contravened the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. A process of judicial review in the Basic Law on the legality of laws enacted by the legislature 'is new to Hong Kong' and caused the 'biggest controversies' in the past three years, she said. Miss Leung was referring to the Court of Final Appeal ruling on January 29 last year on right of abode. The ruling invalidated an immigration law's definition of permanent residents based on provisions in the Basic Law. The court's ruling was overturned after the Government asked Beijing to intervene. 'Before reunification, our courts could not have held that immigration legislation defining who has the right to live in Hong Kong was invalid. Since then, they can and have done so. This demonstrates that the Basic Law provides stronger guarantees than did the colonial constitutional instruments,' she said. Referring to 'criticisms that have been levelled at me' including the Hongkong Standard, Xinhua and Big Spender cases, Miss Leung dismissed them as 'ill-founded' and arising out of 'people's mistrust of the mainland legal system'. Miss Leung was criticised over her decision not to prosecute Sally Aw Sian, then chairwoman of Sing Tao Holdings, over the Standard circulation fraud case even though she was named a co-conspirator. Miss Leung also came under fire for not prosecuting a former Xinhua chief over failing to comply with a personal data protection law, and for not seeking the return of gangster 'Big Spender' Cheung Tze-keung from the mainland for trial. The controversies were cited by Amnesty International in a report on China's human rights. The group said Beijing's intervention in the right of abode case showed Hong Kong's lack of autonomy and 'the loopholes in the checks, balances and separation of powers which underpin human rights guarantees in the Basic Law'. Miss Leung rejected the criticism and said some international legal experts shared the Government's view that the rule of law had not been undermined by the interpretation move.