New Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng said she will not resign over the illegal structures discovered at her and her husband’s homes.
“I will not resign. I took the job after thorough consideration. I have passion for this job. I hope to use my experience and ability to serve Hong Kong. I have been hoping to handle this incident well as soon as possible so that – as I said at the opening of the legal year – I can serve as secretary for justice with humility, courage and determination – to serve without fear or favour,” she said.
Following an inspection, the Buildings Department confirmed that there were nine illegal structures at the two properties at Villa De Mer in Tuen Mun, including rooms on the roof, extensions on the ground floor, basements, canopies, and a swimming pool.
She maintained that the structures were already present when she bought the house in 2008. Cheng, a chartered engineer, said she did not make any changes.
“At that point in time, I was involved in a number of projects as well as a number of community services… the Minimum Wage Commission, the Transport Advisory Committee, so on, so I was very busy. But that of course is not and cannot be an excuse, it was an oversight, as I said I could have done better, I should have spent more time and thought about whatever has happened to engage an authorised person to go and inspect the property before I take possession of it,” she said.
“That is something I have to say that I could improve on my performance, and I think this particular incident has given me a lot to learn, and actually allowed me to strengthen myself in performing my duties as a secretary for justice in the future.”
The September 2008 agreement to purchase Cheng’s house includes a paragraph that said the buyer was invited to check – or authorise a representative to check – the property. It said that the buyer agreed and accepted the condition of the building. She said it was a common clause and she was in a rush to buy a home.
Asked if she already knew of the illegal structures at the time, she said: “It was a long time ago and I cannot remember the details well… I was not aware as to whether the structures were there.”
She also said the time between her acceptance for becoming justice chief and her appointment was very short: “After I received the invitation, I had a lot to handle… so I directed my effort to work and omitted my personal issues.”
Cheng said an authorised person she hired has met with the Buildings Department and suggested a rectification proposal to fix the unauthorised structures. She said she and her husband Otto Poon – former president of the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers – were not authorised persons themselves.
Cheng has degrees in engineering and law and was one of the chairs of the Appeal Tribunal, Buildings Ordinance between 2000 and 2006.
“In so far as that is concerned, of course, one doesn’t look at a thing and know whether that is illegal. That is why we have the system called authorised person and of course the building surveyor and so on, who will be able to verify whether or not there are such illegal structures or unauthorised building works by looking at the drawings,” she said.
She said a door was added later at the boundary wall of her neighbouring block, which her husband bought in 2012: “It was not done by me, but of course I knew about it.”
Cheng refused to answer as to whether her pre-appointment integrity checks included questions about illegal structures.