Why go easy on Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng in illegal structures saga?

Recent events remind one of the Profumo scandal in Britain in the 1960s when too many people offered too many excuses too soon

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 January, 2018, 10:56pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 January, 2018, 12:39pm

The basement may not have been revealed because it was not thought necessary, or because of an oversight, or because it did not exist at the time …

Grenville Cross SC,

Former prosecutor,

SCMP, January 19

But, Grenville, if the basement did not exist at the time that the owner of the house, our present Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah took out a mortgage on it, then she herself must have had that basement built.

In that case she certainly would have known it was an illegal structure and there really is no start of an excuse for her.

I do not want to be brutal about these things but recent events in this story remind me of the Profumo scandal in Britain in the 1960s when the war minister, John Profumo, stood accused of sharing the attentions of a prostitute with a Russian intelligence agent and lied about it.

The great and the good of Britain all lined up to say what a nice man Profumo was and he didn’t really mean it and it was all so unfortunate and perhaps we should just give him some time to explain himself.

Likewise, I see a little too much here at the moment of the great and good of Hong Kong lining up too soon to say that we should go easy on Teresa Cheng and maybe she didn’t really know and anyway it’s so hard to find a justice minister these days.

Too busy? Teresa Cheng’s book says it’s not a defence

Well maybe this is so but we have a serious question of integrity here.

If she knew that the illegal structures at her home were illegal, then she lied to us about it and every day that she continues as justice minister mocks the entire administration. We need to sort this out soon.

Ongoing inquiries may not come up with hard evidence that she knew but, as she makes clear in her own book, she herself bears the burden of proof that her mistake in not recognising a breach of the law was reasonable, which is a long s-t-r-e-t-c-h. What we have here is a denial that is simply not credible.

She is a chartered engineer and long-serving barrister with a speciality in construction cases, who has written and twice revised a legal textbook on local construction law and who has argued illegal structure matters in court.

Let me repeat this. She wrote the book on the law and illegal structures are the most common breach of that law. She has to explain herself.

It does not help then that she has told a Legislative Council panel that she will not be able to attend its meeting this month.

What’s the matter, madam? Do you again plead “too busy”?

The question now, irrespective of any possible outcome of any possible trial, is whether the people of Hong Kong can have sufficient confidence in her respect for justice to keep her as secretary for justice.

The issue of illegal structures is a time bomb, not a lack of political sensitivity

This is a classic case of the Caesar’s wife condition – she must not only be innocent but must be seen to be innocent.

She may suffer no penalty if a court accepts her claim of ignorance but this would still not make her a suitable secretary for justice.

She has to go much further than that now to keep the job.

Continuing with the theme of too many people wanting to let her off the hook too easily, the writer of a letter to the editor in Friday’s paper argued that, as the illegal structures were already part of the property when she bought it, she was “a victim rather than the culprit”.

Oh, come now. That would certainly make it easy to get around the law.

Just buy your flat, complete with illegal structures, on the secondary market, and instantly you are a victim rather than an offender.

But this is what the law will now be if no less than the secretary for justice is not held to stricter standards.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article referred to Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah as ‘chief justice’. This has been corrected.