Hong Kong ‘sorry law’ to resolve disputes moves a step closer

Report says apologies would be accepted in most cases without legal consequences; lawmaker expects to see rise of insincere expressions of regret

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 November, 2016, 11:26pm
UPDATED : Monday, 28 November, 2016, 11:26pm

Hong Kong has moved a step closer to a “sorry law”, which aims to encourage parties to apologise in legal disputes and bear no legal consequences, with the publication on Monday of a final report on a proposed bill.

The Steering Committee on Mediation made two recommendations on the long-awaited legislation, proposing that in most cases the apologies would not be used as evidence in court to determine legal liability.

But immunity would stop short of being absolute, the committee said, because the facts that accompany the apology could still be used in civil, disciplinary and regulatory hearings.

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

Legal practitioners were quick to point out that although the number of apologies from the government – currently bound by legal concerns – was expected to rise, the sympathy it offered might not be genuine.

As the law stands now, officials and individuals are often reluctant to deliver a prompt apology in the case of a tragedy for fear of possible legal liabilities.

“There is going to be an increasing number of insincere apologies,” Democratic Party lawmaker James To Kun-sun said, adding that if the government offered more than a general apology, the additional details would still be subject to the court’s discretion.

The committee received 60 responses from government departments, statutory bodies, political parties, organisations and academics during a consultation from February to April.

Although it received a number of responses saying that regulators and disciplinary hearings should be exempted from the apology bill for various reasons, the committee proposed that all should be included other than proceedings arising from the Commission of Inquiry Ordinance, Coroner Ordinance and the Control of Obscene and Indecent Articles Ordinances.

The report, which took reference from other common law jurisdictions such as Canada and the United Kingdom, also proposed that while it was important to ensure the apologies would be encouraged and free from legal consequences, relevant tribunals could still retain discretion to accept details relating to the apology as evidence if they found this “just and equitable”, in a bid to strike a balance.

Amid faulty perceptions that the legislation might misled people into thinking the government would have to apologise for “each and every minor glitch”, the report cautioned: “It would still be an individual’s own decision.”

To, a solicitor, who often assists aggrieved parties seek redress from the authorities, agreed that it would reduce hard feelings between parties.

Former legislator Alan Leong Kah-kit SC called the proposed bill a balanced one and “worth doing”.

Dennis Kwok, a barrister and Civic Party lawmaker, suggested the apology bill should also cover officials during a commission of inquiry.

“If officials are able to apologise, it could help to resolve conflicts in incidences that the public care deeply about, such the lead water saga. But at the moment, commissions of inquiry are not included in the apology legislation.”

Solicitor Holden Chow Ho-ding, a lawmaker from the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, said the legislation was intended to provide an incentive for people at fault in an incident to say sorry, so as to at least make the victim feel better.

Additional reporting by Raymond Cheng