Sorry shouldn’t be the hardest word

The ‘apology’ law could help defuse tensions and prevent disputes getting worse, and it is a shame it has taken so long to be enacted

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 July, 2017, 1:19am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 July, 2017, 1:19am

Sorry can be a hard word to say for officials, company bosses and medical professionals when they are at fault, but not necessarily because of a reluctance to admit an error or to swallow pride. The risk of leaving themselves open to legal liability is a very real concern. “Sorry” laws that get around this obstacle by separating an apology from liability have long been in force in countries like the United States, Canada, Britain and Australia. Now Hong Kong’s lawmakers have passed a law that will help people to settle disputes by saying sorry without fear of admitting fault or legal liability.

It is regrettable that it has taken so long when a sincere apology can prevent disputes escalating, such as in medical negligence cases, can facilitate reconciliation and settlement, and help comfort and bring emotional closure. In the case of the Lamma ferry collision in 2012, the officer in charge of marine safety only apologised after eight months, apparently out of concerns over the legal implications.

Nothing wrong with saying sorry, just make sure it’s sincere

Under the law, an apology or expression of regret or sympathy will not be admissible as evidence to determine fault or liability in civil and other non-criminal proceedings. There are certain exemptions. For example where no other evidence is available any factual information contained within an apology may be admissible as evidence if this is considered “just and equitable” in the public interest or the interests of the administration of justice. Defending the exemption, Democrat lawmaker James To Kun-sun pointed out that total exemption from liability could be unfair to victims because they might choose to take their claims to court rather than settle.

Reluctance to apologise often antagonises other parties and makes things worse. Justice department research shows that in the wake of a mishap people often avoid making an apology, or are advised not to, even if they believe they have done nothing wrong but wish to convey condolences. It was good to hear the Civic Party’s Dr Kwok Ka-ki say the medical profession is positive about the legislation, “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”.