An apology law is long overdue in Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 June, 2015, 1:40am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 June, 2015, 8:43am

Sorry is a word we were all taught to say at a young age. Yet it is the hardest word to say for government officials, company executives and medical professionals caught in disputes, blunders and mishaps. Sometimes it's not because they do not want to admit fault or find it difficult to swallow their pride; they are just wary of the legal liability that follows. The reluctance to apologise often antagonises the parties concerned and aggravates the situation.

But changes are under way. After years of consideration, a government committee has proposed a bill seeking to separate an apology from liability. It would make the apology inadmissible in lawsuits even if it includes admission of fault or liability. The so-called sorry law will cover the government and private parties. A final decision will be made after public consultation.

That it took so long to make it easier for officials and others to apologise is a sorry state of affairs. In the case of the Lamma ferry collision tragedy in 2012, the official in charge of marine safety only apologised after eight months, apparently out of concerns over the legal implications. An apology law has long been in force in countries like the United States, Australia, Canada and Britain. For instance, the US enacted an apology law as early as 1986. It has been extended to some 30 states, mainly covering civil actions against health care professionals or involving some aspects of personal injuries. In Hong Kong, the need for such a law was only raised by a government working group on mediation in 2010. While there appears to be in-principle support for the law, a timetable for enactment is still lacking.

To say sorry may not undo the hurt. But in times of tension or sorrow, a sincere apology can be comforting, and may facilitate reconciliation and settlement. The government should finalise the legislative proposal in light of the views expressed during the consultation and speed up the enactment. Hopefully, officials, medical professionals and company executives will feel more comfortable in apologising when needed.