Hong Kong MTR

Rail link construction scandal firm Leighton hires top Hong Kong lawyer Paul Shieh for commission of inquiry

Two overseas engineering experts are also brought into investigation over shoddy work, which is expected to last eight weeks, ending after Christmas

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 September, 2018, 5:42pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 September, 2018, 3:40pm

The main contractor at the centre of a construction scandal plaguing Hong Kong’s most expensive rail link has appointed a top barrister to represent it at a high-level inquiry into shoddy work starting next month.

During a preliminary session on Monday to lay the ground rules for the independent commission of inquiry starting on October 22, it was revealed that Leighton Contractors (Asia) had hired Paul Shieh Wing-tai, a senior counsel and former Bar Association chairman.

Leighton, which has remained silent on the controversy, was the main contractor in charge of building the Hung Hom station platforms for the HK$97.1 billion Sha Tin-Central rail link, where the shoddy work was found.

Two overseas engineering experts were also brought into the investigation, which was expected to last eight weeks and end after Christmas.

Rail giant the MTR Corporation, which is overseeing construction of the project, hired British barrister Philip Boulding, who specialises in cases related to engineering.

The government and two subcontractors also appointed legal representatives.

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The commission has the right to summon witnesses and request documents as necessary.

Shieh has had a number of high-profile appointments. He was one of three lawyers representing a commission of inquiry into the Lamma ferry crash, in which 39 people died in 2012.

He also represented two disqualified lawmakers, Nathan Law Kwun-chung and Edward Yiu Chung-yim, when the pair appealed to the Legislative Council to drop a claim for them to repay their salaries and expenses last year.

During Monday’s session, the commission’s legal representative, Ian Pennicott, outlined the possible outcome of the inquiry.

“The final report could subject individuals, companies, institutions or departments to criticisms, and make recommendations which may have a long-term impact on the future conduct of such entities,” Pennicott said.

Commission chairman Michael Hartmann, a former non-permanent Court of Final Appeal judge, also noted procedures had started “somewhat later than what would be ideal”.

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Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor had hoped the commission, formed in July, could finish its investigation in six months.

Hartmann explained that his second in command, engineering expert Peter Hansford, was not available until later next month.

The first day of the substantive hearing will begin on October 22, and continue on weekdays, except for public holidays. On November 17, the commission will take a break and resume on November 22, also to accommodate Hansford’s schedule.

Hartmann warned the hearing might continue beyond the Christmas holiday and asked for the parties involved to make preparations.

It was further revealed on Monday that two expert witnesses – Steve Rowsell and Don McQuillan – would be brought over from Britain to provide knowledge on non-compliance and project management.

Boulding said the MTR Corp was also considering bringing in its own experts.

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According to Pennicott, the commission had received 40 witness statements, but some “primary” ones were still pending. He was expecting the final tally to be more than 50.

After opening statements from relevant parties, Pennicott said, the commission would hear evidence first from subcontractor Intrafor, which might have a “limited role” in the case.

The scandal broke in May, when reports of workers cutting steel bars to fake proper installation into couplers in a new platform at Hung Hom station surfaced.

Subcontractor China Technology blamed Leighton for the cutting and alleged more than 1,000 steel bars were involved.

The scandal led to an overhaul of top management at the rail firm, with four executives resigning in early August and an early departure planned for CEO Lincoln Leong Kwok-kuen.

Police were also investigating the Hung Hom station case, at the request of the Highways Department.