Obituary: Simon Li, the trailblazing judge who took on Tung Chee-hwa

Simon Li, the first Chinese to act as chief justice dies aged 91 surrounded by family in hospital

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 February, 2013, 4:25am

Simon Li Fook-sean 1922-2013

The first Chinese Hongkonger to act as chief justice, Simon Li Fook-sean, died of heart failure in hospital surrounded by his family on Tuesday night. He was 91 years old.

Li - who stood in as the city's top judge under British rule back in 1986 and campaigned against Tung Chee-hwa to be the first chief executive - had battled ill health since being admitted to hospital with a chronic respiratory problem about a year ago.

His only daughter Gladys Li, ex-chairwoman of the Bar Association, was one of about a dozen relatives gathered by his bedside at the Hong Kong Sanatorium and Hospital in Happy Valley as he neared death.

Looking tired and sad, she was in the Court of Final Appeal yesterday where she is representing domestic helpers in their fight for right of abode. Despite holding very different political views from her father, they were known to be close. She refused comment to the South China Morning Post.

Simon Li's death was confirmed by his nephew Dr Donald Li Kwok-tung, the Academy of Medicine president, who was also present on Tuesday night. "Everyone was very sad when my uncle passed away," he said "Gladys was very sad."

He said the family was still arranging the funeral, which was likely to be held at a Catholic church in line with Simon Li's beliefs.

Li is also survived by his wife and four of his five sons. His second son Joseph died suddenly in Britain in 1995.

Li earned the reputation as a trailblazer among the legal fraternity after serving on the bench for more than two decades.

In 1987, he retired at the age of 64 as the city's most senior Chinese judge. In 1991, he saw his brother Ronald Li Fook-shiu, the former Stock Exchange chairman, jailed for corruption.

As well as standing in for then chief justice Denys Roberts in the 1980s, Simon Li scored several other "firsts" - he was the first Chinese judge appointed to the High Court in 1971, and the first Chinese appeal judge in 1984.

And he ran in the first chief executive election during the transition of sovereignty in 1997. Li was the oldest candidate, running against Roberts' successor as chief judge Yang Ti-liang; and tycoons Peter Woo Kwong-ching and the eventual winner Tung.

Lawmaker Ronny Tong Ka-wah recalled the last time he spoke to Li - nearly 30 years ago, when tunnelling work for the MTR caused alarm in the court building above.

At the time, the High Court was located in the former Legislative Council building in Central, by Statue Square. "I was before him for a civil case. All of a sudden, everyone was evacuated from the courtroom due to fears about the foundation of the building. So Mr Li and I were among the crowd outside the building and we chatted."

Tong added: "I had known Mr Li since I was a young barrister. He was an easy-going judge who was very kind to young lawyers."

Li studied at the city's King's College from 1937 to 1941 before going to the University of Hong Kong and then studying on the mainland.

He read law at University College London from 1947 to 1950, and was called to Britain's Lincoln's Inn Bar in 1951.

He became a crown counsel in Hong Kong's Legal Department of 1953, and a district judge in 1966.

He served as a High Court judge between 1971 and 1980, and became a justice of appeal in 1980 until his retirement in 1987.

In 1984, Li accepted an appointment to the Independent Monitoring Team on the Assessment Office, to monitor the acceptability of the Sino-British Draft Agreement.

He was also a member of the Basic Law drafting committee, a Hong Kong Affairs Adviser appointed by Beijing, and deputy director of the preliminary working committee of the Preparatory Committee for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

His nephews include ex-legislator David Li Kwok-po, the Bank of East Asia chairman; Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, deputy chairman at the bank, ex-education secretary and former dean of Chinese University's Faculty of Medicine.

In 1997, Tung's government awarded Simon Li Hong Kong's highest honour, the Grand Bauhinia Medal.