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Law

Hong Kong buildings inspectors to begin probe into suspected illegal structures at new justice chief’s home

Buildings Department officials to visit property on Tuesday morning as calls mount for Teresa Cheng to consider resigning over the debacle

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 January, 2018, 1:18pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 January, 2018, 11:38am

Hong Kong’s Buildings Department was expected to begin a probe on Tuesday morning into suspected illegal structures at the house of the city’s new justice minister, as calls mounted for her to consider resigning over the controversy.

The government inspection comes four days after officials failed to access the home of Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah to investigate on Friday – the day before she officially took up her post.

Local media revealed on Saturday that structures identified at the homes of both Cheng and a property next door belonging to her husband in Tuen Mun were suspected to be illegal. The structures at Cheng’s house included a basement, a rooftop glass house and garden pools.

A source said officers from the department, which initiated follow-up action after receiving a media inquiry late last month, would inspect Cheng’s house on Tuesday morning.

Cheng, who said on Saturday that she would cooperate with any probe, did not respond to media questions about the scandal at an event marking the beginning of the legal year on Monday, despite mounting calls for her to come clean about whether she, as a lawyer and chartered engineer, knew the structures concerned were illegal when she bought the house in 2008.

Cheng only said in her speech that the rule of law should be “observed and respected by the community as a whole”.

Hong Kong justice secretary Teresa Cheng apologises on first day in office for controversy over ‘illegal structures’ in her home

“It is through our daily lives and activities that we become testament to the rule of law,” she said.

Cheng’s husband Otto Poon Lok-to made an appearance at the legal event. Asked why he, as an engineer, had not been aware of the structures, he said: “I just overlooked it carelessly.”

He did not answer questions on whether he had altered any of the structures after buying the house, only saying he would explain more on Tuesday.

Lawrence Lok Ying-kam SC, who is vying for membership of the governing body of the Hong Kong Bar Association, said on a radio show on Monday that Cheng should consider quitting her post.

“If she was aware of this issue before starting her role [as justice secretary] and did not make any rectifications even when she had the chance, she should seriously consider resigning,” Lok said.

Teresa Cheng housing controversy deepens as she reveals she is married to neighbour

“The extent of the issue is not simply about adding an extra clothes drying rack, but involves the [possible] construction of a basement and whether rates were paid,” he said.

On Saturday, Cheng apologised for the inconvenience caused by the incident, but claimed the structures in question were already there when she bought the property. She did not elaborate on whether she knew the structures were illegal.

Lok said the issue of illegal building structures had received greater public attention following the emergence of scandals involving former minister Henry Tang Ying-yen and former leader Leung Chun-ying during the chief executive election of 2012. Both men’s homes were revealed to have unauthorised structures.

Henry Tang puts on brave face ahead of wife’s trial over illegal basement

Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai echoed Lok’s comments, saying Cheng should consider whether she should carry on as justice minister.

“The credibility of the judicial system can be safeguarded if she is no longer in this position,” Wu said.

But Winnie Tam Wan-chi SC, a former Bar Association chairwoman, called on the public to give Cheng more time to resolve the issue, saying she had been appointed at short notice.

“If she can fix this ... I don’t see how the issue will affect her future work,” Tam said.

Pro-establishment heavyweight Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai also did not see a need for Cheng to resign.

“I believe this could just be a mistake she hadn’t intended to make,” she said.

Edward Chan King-sang SC, another former Bar Association chair, said the saga could give the public the impression Cheng lacked political sensitivity.