Hong Kong passes law making it easier to say ‘sorry’ without legal consequences

The idea is that officials and others can apologise for mistakes without admitting they were at fault

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 July, 2017, 4:55pm
UPDATED : Friday, 14 July, 2017, 2:20am

Sorry may be the hardest word, but Hong Kong is hoping to make it easier after the Legislative Council yesterday passed an apology law that will help people to settle disputes by saying “sorry” without fear of admitting fault or legal liability.

Legco approved by 46-2 votes the long-awaited Apology Bill, which is intended to prevent the escalation of disputes, such as medical negligence cases, and to facilitate their “amicable” resolution. It was proposed by the government’s steering committee last year and will now apply to the administration as well.

Under the law, an apology, whether oral, written or by conduct expressing “regret, sympathy or benevolence”, will not be admissible as evidence to determine fault or liability in civil and other non-criminal proceedings, subject to certain exemptions.

Hong Kong government ‘likely to be primary user’ of proposed ‘sorry law’

For example, if no other evidence is available in those proceedings, any factual information contained within an apology can be admissible as evidence, as long as the court or other authority presiding over the hearing considers it “just and equitable” to do so, having regard to “the public interest or the interests of the administration of justice”.

Some lawmakers were concerned that the exemptive wording was too vague, but Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung said it was appropriate.

“The expression ‘just and equitable’ is well known under common law,” Yuen said, adding the same was true for the concept of “public interest”.

“I have no doubt that the courts can, and will, decide what is and what is not ‘just and equitable’ in a professional and judicious manner.”

The idea of introducing an apology law, which is already in place in countries such as Canada and United States, was raised after the Lamma ferry disaster of 2012, when the Marine Department director at the time took eight months to offer an apology. He cited the need to take legal advice.

According to the Department of Justice, local and overseas research shows that in a dispute following a mishap, people often avoid making an apology, or are advised by their lawyers not to, even if they genuinely believe they have done nothing wrong but still wish to convey condolences or sympathy.

Once a doctor apologises ... you are seen as admitting fault
Kwok Ka-ki, Civic Party lawmaker

But the perception of apathy could become an obstacle for the other party to accept a resolution.

During the debate, the Civic Party’s Kwok Ka-ki, who is a medical doctor, said his profession was positive about the legislation.

“An apology is never easy to make,” he said. “Because once a doctor apologises over unfortunate incidents such as the death of a patient or complications arising from surgery, you are seen as admitting fault.”

Democrat James To Kun-sun, also speaking in support of the bill, said total exemption from liability would be unfair to victims because they might have a change of heart after accepting an apology and decide to take their claims to court rather than settle.

Ombudsman Connie Lau Yin-hing welcomed the passage of the bill, saying it would encourage public bodies to be more forthcoming in extending apologies, lead to effective resolution of disputes and “restore social cohesion and mutual trust”.

Professor Simon Young Ngai-man, associate law dean at the University of Hong Kong, said the new law was likely to result in less litigation and more out-of-court settlements.

“The thinking is that hopefully the feeling of grievance and outrage about what has happened will be alleviated when this apology is made at the earliest possible time,” he said.

Affected parties would then be able to think about moving forward rather than prolonging their distress, he added.