South China Morning Post
                                           Wednesday, May 17, 2000


                                                                   Staying on

                                           Before the handover, Elsie Leung Oi-sie was a
                                           respected family lawyer whose meteoric elevation to
                                           one of the most important posts in the SAR caused
                                           something of a stir because she lacked widely
                                           recognised qualifications for the job. As Secretary for
                                           Justice, she has been embroiled in controversy most
                                           of the time ever since.

                                           News of her extended tenure to June 2002 is proving
                                           equally contentious, although the announcement will
                                           not cause much surprise. The Chief Executive has
                                           frequently affirmed his faith in her as his top law
                                           officer. She is just as well respected on the mainland,
                                           thanks to a lifetime of close contacts there. But, sadly,
                                           that high opinion is not shared by many in local legal
                                           circles, nor is it endorsed by a clear majority of the

                                           The controversy surrounding Sally Aw Sian two years
                                           ago, and Miss Leung's handling of it, caused the first
                                           tremors of alarm. When she cited "public interest" for
                                           failing to prosecute the newspaper magnate, although
                                           four executives from Ms Aw's newspaper, the Hong
                                           Kong Standard were imprisoned for falsifying
                                           circulation figures, senior legal figures expressed
                                           astonishment that the Secretary for Justice should
                                           have strayed so far from legal considerations when
                                           reaching her decision. Her main argument, that there
                                           was insufficient evidence to prosecute, was not
                                           supported by the Director of Public Prosecutions.

                                           Ms Aw's social position and her long friendship with
                                           the Chief Executive raised fears there now might be
                                           one law for the rich and another for the poor. For
                                           many critics, on that day Hong Kong ceased to be a
                                           city where no one is above the law. Although the
                                           courts retain their independence, and the common
                                           law is still paramount, the concept of rule of law was
                                           badly damaged by the decision and the harm will be
                                           difficult to dispel.

                                           Widespread anxiety over the local courts' loss of
                                           autonomy greeted the SAR Government's decision to
                                           appeal to Beijing over the Court of Final Appeal's
                                           right of abode ruling. It was the Executive Council
                                           which decided to seek reinterpretation of the relevant
                                           clause in the Basic Law by the Standing Committee of
                                           the National People's Congress. But if the Secretary
                                           for Justice had advised against it, the request would
                                           almost certainly not have been made. It struck legal
                                           colleagues as equally shocking when she defended
                                           the decision in the Legislative Council by saying she
                                           saw no difference between "clarification" and

                                           More controversy arose when laws were adopted to
                                           exempt the central Government's Liaison Office in
                                           Hong Kong from many local ordinances. More
                                           recently, damage to the common law was cited as one
                                           reason for the Economist Intelligence Unit's decision,
                                           in a global survey, to downgrade the city from first to
                                           sixth place in its rankings of free market economies.
                                           Thus in some ways, the justice system has not fared
                                           well under Miss Leung's tutelage.

                                           To be fair, there is no question that Miss Leung acts
                                           in a way she believes is best for Hong Kong. Insiders
                                           also claim that, because the Beijing leadership feels
                                           so comfortable with her, she has been able to
                                           persuade them that it would be better to wait for an
                                           indefinite period before drafting a contentious
                                           sedition law as called for by Article 23 of the Basic

                                           Professionally, the Secretary for Justice is at best
                                           perceived as well-intentioned but lacking political
                                           wisdom, at worst as being too considerate of Beijing's
                                           interests. At the time of the censure motion last year,
                                           which Miss Leung survived, there were calls for her
                                           resignation, when it might have been appropriate to
                                           identify a successor.

                                           Although no one has been groomed to take over,
                                           there are lawyers from the democratic and pro-Beijing
                                           camps with the qualifications needed for the post but
                                           perhaps few have the political connections. It may be
                                           that none has the appetite for a job which traditionally
                                           attracts so much criticism, although never before has
                                           there been criticism of the sustained kind that has
                                           marred Miss Leung's tenure. So it is difficult to
                                           welcome the Chief Executive's decision to reappoint