Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng has hit back at detractors who criticised the Department of Justice (DoJ) for failing to seek outside legal advice during an investigation into corruption allegations against ex-leader Leung Chun-ying.

She said on Wednesday that it is not the “usual practice” of the department to solicit legal advise when handling sensitive cases, despite there being several instances of the department doing so in the past.

Teresa Cheng.

Her statement follows last month’s decision on the part of the DoJ to refrain from prosecuting Leung, and contradicts past instances of cases related to top officials. The DoJ had sought outside legal advice in the cases of former financial secretary Antony Leung and former chief executive Donald Tsang, among others. A case against Cheng, which involved illegal structures in her home, involved the DoJ seeking outside legal advice from senior counsel Edwin Choy.

‘Usual practice’

Leung Chun-ying came under fire after receiving HK$50million from Australian engineering firm UGL as part of a takeover deal with insolvent property company DTZ, aimed at preventing him from joining a rival firm within two years. The deal was signed shortly after Leung ran for chief executive in 2011. However, he received part of the payment after he took up the role of chief executive in 2012.

Cheng has been criticised by various democrats for saying that the DoJ would only seek outside legal advice in instances of cases involving a member of the department.

Appearing at the Legislative Council to face lawmakers, Cheng said she would not comment on individual cases: “Colleagues of the DoJ have been usually making the decisions on prosecutions. If cases involved members of the DoJ… then the appropriate approach will be to ask for outside legal advice,” she said. “It is not our usual practice to seek outside legal advice.”

Leung Chun-ying. File photo: European Business Summit, via Flickr.

She added that there had been zero cases in 2016, one in 2017 and zero in 2018.

‘Apparent bias’

Cheng said that an objective principle of the DoJ is that it only seeks outside legal advice in cases involving “apparent bias.”

“If there is no such situation, then our decision will not be affected because of potential political sensitivity or potential public or media perception,” she said. “If that principle is not upheld or safeguarded, then we will be swaying one way or another under the influence of the general public or the media.”

Democratic Party lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting said Cheng had violated the principles the DoJ publicly set out: “There is clearly potential bias in this case… If Cheng is the only person who can decide whether there is so-called ‘apparent bias,’ then Hong Kong’s rule of law has become the rule of Teresa Cheng.”

Civic Party lawmaker Tanya Chan. File Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

During the Q&A session, Cheng was asked by Civic Party lawmaker Tanya Chan, if she remembered whether she had worked with Leung in the past. Cheng said she did not recall having done so.

Chan said Cheng was the chair of the Transport Advisory Committee between 2004 and 2010, and that she had to give advice to Leung, who was the convener of the Executive Council at the time.

“[Cheng] is lying inside the legislature,” Chan said. “They worked with each other for six years. How many more things can she not remember?”

She said former secretary for justice Rimsky Yuen had recused himself from deciding on Leung’s case, and that Cheng should have done the same.

Kris Cheng

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.