A top lawyer has said the new Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng should resign following a scandal involving alleged illegal structures at her house.

Speaking to reporters after a Commercial Radio programme on Monday, Senior Counsel Lawrence Lok questioned why Cheng failed to take action to remove the structures a long time ago.

Local media published front page reports on Saturday – the first day of her tenure – alleging that her Tuen Mun property included a suspected 400 square feet basement, an additional room on the roof, an additional balcony and two additional small ponds on the ground floor. Cheng, a chartered engineer, said that her awareness should have been better, and the modifications to the house were already made when she purchased it in 2008.

Lawrence Lok
Lawrence Lok. Photo: RTHK screenshot.

However, Lok did not accept the explanation: “What kind of attitude does she have? Does she want to muddle through, or does she have no fear because she has power? I believe this attitude would affect how she does her job very much.”

“She should resign. After the illegal structure incidents of Henry Tang and Leung Chun-ying, she did not take action to remove the structures after a huge response in society – this is not an attitude a civil servant should have.”

He said there must be a problem with the pre-appointment integrity checks for officials.

Teresa Cheng
Teresa Cheng.

Lok nonetheless praised Cheng’s professional achievements, having risen to the position of senior counsel in a short time. He said she was good in the area of international arbitration, which few other people were familiar with.

Lok, a former vice-chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association, is running for a seat on its council with Philip Dykes’ list.

Gov’t inspection

Cheng also revealed that Otto Poon – a former president of the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers who bought the neighbouring block in 2012 – was her husband. Poon’s block also has suspected illegal structures similar to Cheng’s. The two residences were connected with a door.

Teresa Cheng house
Unauthorised structure at Teresa Cheng’s house.

Around ten members of the Neo Democrats party protested outside the Buildings Department’s headquarters on Monday and reported the case.

Lau Sai-leung, a former full-time member of the government’s Central Policy Unit, wrote that Cheng’s previous non-disclosure of her relationship with Poon has become a political issue.

He said Cheng has had many public committee positions and Poon was a significant figure in the engineering sector. He was also a member of the chief executive election committee last year.

“Did she ever handle cases involving clients of her husband’s company at the Town Planning Appeal Board and in her commercial arbitration work?” Lau asked.

Lau Sai-leung
Lau Sai-leung.

Lau also said Chief Executive Carrie Lam was in charge of handling illegal structures during her tenure as secretary for development, including examining every corner of chief executive candidate Henry Tang’s house after a similar illegal structures scandal in 2012.

“The public hopes Lam will use the same standards to handle the justice chief she picked, otherwise she would be protecting her and it would harm the credibility of the government. But Lam only said she urged Cheng to explain the issue – so that she could avoid responsibility,” Lau said.

Rita Fan, a member of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, said the incident was unfortunate, and Cheng may have lacked awareness since she was so busy.

Fan said Cheng should not have to resign: “I believe she will be more careful and will work harder in the future.”

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.