At a recent ceremony marking the start of the legal year 2018, the new Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah became the focus of media attention amid the scandal concerning illegal structures found in her villa in Tuen Mun.
The audience paid extra attention to her understanding and interpretation of the concept of the rule of law as expressed in her keynote speech delivered at the ceremony.
In her speech, Cheng said “the rule of law manifests itself in a multitude of facets. Law exists in practice. However, it should not only be practised by the lawyers, the judges and the government. More importantly, the rule of law should be observed and respected by the community as a whole. It is through our daily lives and activities that we become testament to the existence of the rule of law. All of us jointly bear the responsibility to respect, promote and further the rule of law as a fundamental basis of our society.”
The justice chief hit the nail on the head when she stressed that all members of society “jointly bear the responsibility to respect, promote and further the rule of law”.
Indeed, upholding the rule of law shouldn’t be seen as a monopoly of legal professionals such as judges and lawyers as the law itself concerns all people in society in their everyday lives.
In home purchases, for example, both buyers and sellers will have to seek professional advice from lawyers because the jargon used in legal documents pertaining to the deal is often beyond the comprehension of average people, even those who have time to go through all the papers.
Lawyers, therefore, have the professional responsibility to remind their clients, i.e., the homebuyers, to find out if there is any illegal structure on the property, and if there is, the potential legal liability they might face if they don’t remove it.
It doesn’t take a highly experienced lawyer or senior barrister to close a home purchase deal. Any legal practitioner who has completed a one-year full-time program and obtained the Postgraduate Certificate in Laws (PCLL) is qualified to process a real estate contract.
Most people in Hong Kong are busy, particularly highly capable and competent people like our new justice secretary.
And as we all know, when people have too many things to attend to at the same time, they often make mistakes. So it is perfectly understandable when busy people make mistakes.
However, what really matters is the magnitude of such mistakes. In particular, it could lead to dire consequences if a mistake took place within one’s professional field and was of such magnitude that people began to question the person’s professional competence or even integrity.
After Secretary Cheng’s “Villa-gate” scandal broke out, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor immediately came to her defense by urging the public to be more “inclusive” and stop holding Cheng’s feet to the fire over the matter.
At this point, I feel compelled to point out that our CE would be getting it all wrong if she thought people were coming after Secretary Cheng over the illegal structures found in her home just because they were nitpicking or being difficult.
The media and the public are following the facts on Cheng’s “mistakes” wherever they may lead because she is a high-ranking and powerful official, and the more powerful the holder of a public office is, the higher moral standard he or she should be held up to by society. It is nothing personal, but purely a matter of basic political ethics.
Even if our fellow citizens were willing to go easy on our new justice secretary over her “mistakes”, it would still take a heavy toll on her own credibility when the first legal case she had to handle on the first day of her job was ironically the illegal structures found in her own home.
As Confucius once said, “always walk the walk first before you talk the talk”. I really hope that Secretary Cheng can truly deliver what she has promised in her speech.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan 15
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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