Teresa Cheng

Arbitration legal eagle Teresa Cheng tipped to be Hong Kong’s next justice secretary

She is a highly respected figure in her field but her political stance remains unclear, according to peers

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 December, 2017, 8:03pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 January, 2018, 12:40pm

Prominent legal figure in arbitration, Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah, is expected to become Hong Kong’s next justice secretary as early as January, the Post has learned.

Lauded by lawyers across the political spectrum as communicative and knowledgeable in constitutional matters, Cheng’s political leanings, however, remain unknown as she has – until now – stayed below the radar in the city’s divided environment.

With her expected move, some of Cheng’s peers have called on her to do more to reflect to Beijing the concerns of Hongkongers over the rule of law in the city under the “one country, two systems” principle.

A government source said Cheng, 59, agreed to take up the post after Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung steps down as expected in January. She would first have to pass integrity checks as part of the appointment process.

The central government will appoint the next secretary for justice after it approves the recommendation by Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who will meet state leaders in a duty visit to Beijing this week.

The likely appointment of Cheng – a senior counsel since 2000 and former chairwoman of the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre – concludes months of speculation over Yuen’s successor.

Cheng completed her law degree at the University of London. In the past decade, she took up posts in statutory bodies, and represented the government in the landmark Congo case in 2011. The case centred on Hong Kong’s policy on state immunity and triggered the first court request to Beijing for an interpretation of the Basic Law.

South China Sea ruling ‘final and binding’ only if jurisdiction is clear, says Hong Kong law expert

Cheng also worked as a deputy judge and later, as a recorder at the Court of First Instance.

“[The selection of Cheng] is good for Hong Kong as it needs further development in arbitration. Equally, she has certain experience in public law,” Johnny Mok Shiu-luen SC said.

Mok, who is also a Basic Law adviser to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, the country’s top legislative body, said that the next justice secretary would have to “communicate with Beijing more ... to reflect Hong Kong people’s understanding and impression of the rule of law, in light of the differences between the two systems”.

Unlike mainland China, Hong Kong adopts an independent judiciary and rule of law as part of China’s promise for one country, two systems when it resumed sovereignty over the city from the British in 1997.

Former Bar Association chairman Paul Shieh Wing-tai said: “It is necessary for the next secretary for justice to be bold and speak up to give Hongkongers reassurances when there are comments that could be reasonably perceived as attempts by the mainland to interfere with our system.”

Shieh added that while Cheng’s expertise in arbitration was highly regarded, especially in the face of regional competition from Singapore, “she will be judged not just by her focus on the moneymaking side, but also on how she defends the spirit of the rule of law”.

Hong Kong justice minister Rimsky Yuen expected to step down in January

Like Shieh, legal sector lawmaker Dennis Kwok from the pro-democracy Civic Party said Cheng’s stance on politics was unclear. But he added: “I have a high expectation of her and hope she will be impartial and professional, and not politicise the Department of Justice.”

Incumbent Rimsky Yuen was criticised for starting a lawsuit – with then chief executive Leung Chun-ying – against two pro-independence lawmakers last year.

One of the probable tasks facing Yuen’s successor is also to relaunch the contentious Article 23 legislation on national security.

“If Cheng is selected, she will be at least as good as Yuen,” Albert Wong Kwai-huen, Cheng’s predecessor at the arbitration centre, said. “She is a very communicative person, which is especially advantageous in today’s political climate.”

Wong recalled that he was impressed by Cheng on a flight when they were discussing details about the Congo case. “Her mastery of Mandarin is also probably second to none in the legal sector.”