Nothing wrong with saying sorry, just make sure it’s sincere
The new apology law can go a long way towards lowering the temperature in disputes, but it should not be used simply as a public relations gesture
An apology law may sound like a joke, but it’s no laughing matter. When you say sorry, it does not necessarily mean you admit guilt or liability. Sometimes, it’s just an effective way to lower the temperature in a potential confrontation. In a legal dispute, it may make it easier for the two sides to talk more reasonably and reach a settlement more quickly.
So the new law, which has just been passed in the legislature, is one of the few undisputed contributions the controversial Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung has made to the administration of justice and resolution of conflicts.
Government officials as well as professionals such as doctors and lawyers have been reluctant to apologise because to do so may be used as an admission of guilt in case of a civil lawsuit.
The latest legislation means an apology – whether oral, written or by conduct expressing “regret, sympathy or benevolence” – cannot be used as evidence to determine fault or liability in court, subject to some exemptions.
Lawyers who are trained in litigation have been disinclined to think of an apology as a method of dispute resolution. Likewise, insurers are used to advising clients not to apologise for fear of being taken to admit fault or liability to a third party, unless they absolutely have to. However, experience in overseas jurisdictions such as some states in the United States and select provinces in Canada have shown that an apology can sometimes go a long way towards helping to resolve a dispute.
Often, it’s just the human thing to do for families or survivors of accidents involving deaths or severe injuries. There was a public outcry following the Lamma ferry disaster of 2012 because the then Marine Department director took eight months to offer an apology, citing legal advice. Thirty-nine people died in that tragedy.
Ombudsman Connie Lau Yin-hing said the new law would help “restore social cohesion and mutual trust”. That’s especially true in a politically divisive place like Hong Kong. Hopefully, it will enhance accountability and open communication for professionals and government officials with their clients and the public.
The danger is that with the new law in place, officials will now apologise at the drop of a hat, as a method of public relations or damage control, thus rendering the whole gesture meaningless. Even if you don’t admit guilt, sincerity should still be a prerequisite.