Hong Kong’s justice chief Ms Teresa Cheng came under fire over the Christmas holidays for a controversial decision by the Department of Justice to drop investigations into a $50 million payment to former Chief Executive Mr CY Leung.

On Wednesday, Ms Cheng finally broke her silence after refusing to comment for 10 days.

On December 12, the Department of Justice (DoJ) dropped investigations into a $50 million payment Mr Leung received from Australian firm UGL, part of which he received after taking over Hong Kong’s top job in 2012 but failed to disclose.

The decision followed a four-year long investigation by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). The DoJ said reports and relevant materials submitted by the anti-corruption agency suggested there is insufficient evidence to prosecute Mr Leung.

Speaking at the airport on Wednesday, Ms Cheng told reporters that there was no need to seek an outside legal opinion, unless the case involved a member of the DoJ.

For Sec. of Justice: Opaque decision making = responsibility

“Not seeking outside legal advice shows that the DoJ has a sense of responsibility,” she said.

“When we were able to make this decision, there was no conflict of interest, there was no obvious bias – why did we need to seek another legal advice?” she added.

Ms Cheng urged critics not to politicise legal matters.

Others (the entire legal profession) beg to differ

But the top bodies in Hong Kong think otherwise. The Bar Association and the Law Society questioned if the DoJ had changed its policy on seeking outside counsel on cases involving prominent persons, a practice that has been used in the past to remediate concerns regarding potential conflict of interest.

In the past, the DoJ had sought outside legal opinion for cases involving former financial secretary Mr Antony Leung and former chief executive Mr Donald Tsang.

“Her decision was either (made in) ignorance of past facts, or she changed the policy herself,” said Mr Eric Cheung, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong.

Mr Ronny Tong, executive councillor and a senior counsel, said the DoJ could have done more to ease public concerns.

Recently, Ms Cheng herself has escaped prosecution over illegal structures at her main residence and then two other properties she owns. On December 21, DoJ staff said they would not charge Ms Cheng (i.e. their boss), but would charge her husband, Mr Otto Poon, for the illegal work at his house.

In January, the couple was found to have unauthorised construction at their houses, which sit right next to each other and, among other illegal modifications, were illegally joined. The DoJ sought an independent opinion to address conflict of interest in that case.

“There was no evidence to suggest that the unauthorised building works were constructed after Ms Cheng had purchased [the house] or that she had knowingly commenced or carried out [such works] after she became the owner,” said the DoJ in a statement.

They did not comment on Ms Cheng’s expertise as the author of a chapter on illegal structures in a book (Construction Law and Practice in Hong Kong), as a licensed chartered surveyor, or as the former chair of an appeal tribunal under the Buildings Ordinance, ruling on people appealing against rulings against them for having illegal strucutures in their properties (all detailed here).

However, Mr Poon, her husband, will be charged with “knowingly commencing or carrying out building work” without permission.

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