Andrew Li Kwok-nang took over as Hong Kong's top judge at a time of great uncertainty about the future of the city's legal system. The highly-respected barrister faced the unprecedented task of embracing a new constitutional era under the 'one country, two systems' concept, while maintaining public confidence in the city's judicial system. During his 12 years at the helm, Li has tackled some of the toughest challenges and biggest controversies to flow from Hong Kong's return to China. But as he looks ahead to early retirement next year, the judge can take comfort from being widely credited with ensuring that the judiciary's reputation for independence, integrity and strict adherence to the law remains intact. A senior barrister said yesterday: 'He took over at a time when everybody was worried about what was going to happen with the legal system, and he steadied it in a very dignified manner ... which led the public to realise things would not change. History will look back kindly on his 12 years.' Born in Hong Kong into one of the city's best known families, Li studied at Cambridge University, before returning to the city to pursue a successful career as a barrister. He joined last governor Chris Patten's executive council in 1992 and was named chief justice in May 1997, only weeks before the handover, giving up his British citizenship to qualify for the job. His appointment was, at the time, seen as a reassuring sign, given his high standing among the legal profession. But serious doubts were still being expressed about whether the rule of law would survive. The new chief justice quickly conveyed the message that legal traditions were not about to be swept away. The wigs and gowns worn by judges were to stay, along with the ceremonial opening of the new legal year. But his first priority was to place the newly - and controversially - established Court of Final Appeal on a firm footing. This meant finding top-class judges from Hong Kong and overseas. One of his greatest achievements, some lawyers say, has been the ability to hire respected justices from Commonwealth countries to sit as non-permanent judges of the court. It is seen as having contributed to high-quality judgments, enabling the Court of Final Appeal to develop an international reputation. But the court has also been embroiled in controversy. A landmark judgment on the right of abode in January 1999 sparked a constitutional crisis and was effectively overturned by the National People's Congress Standing Committee later that year. Those events were seen as having weakened the judiciary, especially when the court issued an unprecedented clarification of its original ruling and then upheld Beijing's reinterpretation of the Basic Law. However, Li vowed that the courts would continue to call cases as they saw them. Another key right-of-abode judgment, in 2001, went against the government and, this time, was allowed to stand. Three years later, another decision by the top court caused the original timetable for The Link Reit listing to be scrapped, an embarrassment for the government seen by some as contributing to the resignation of then-chief executive Tung Chee-hwa. Confidence in the judiciary has remained strong under Li during a period when other institutions, notably the government and Legislative Council, have frequently come in for criticism. The role of the courts as a check on the power of an unelected government is widely recognised, as seen by the increase over the years in the number of judicial review cases challenging administrative decisions. But key problems concerning the process for interpreting the Basic Law remain unresolved. Li has presided over many less dramatic but equally important changes to the legal system. The Chinese language has increasingly been used in the courts, more new technology has been introduced and long-awaited civil justice reforms were introduced this year. But the biggest remaining challenge for him is to help find the right successor and ensure a smooth transition. His shoes will not be easy ones to fill.