The Legislative Council (LegCo) of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR). (File Photo / Chinanews.com)
HONG KONG - The SAR's legislature passed the "sorry law" bill on Thursday which will mean that apologizing for something serious will not be taken as an admission of guilt or as a legal liability.
The passing of the Apology Bill makes Hong Kong the first jurisdiction in Asia to have such a law.
The government’s legal chief Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung said the move would enhance Hong Kong’s status as the center for dispute resolution and legal services in the Asia Pacific region.
The Apology Ordinance, proposed by the government’s Steering Committee on Mediation last year, is expected to encourage people to make apologies for mistakes, which will prevent disputes from escalating and encourage parties involved in conflict to seek mediation.
In previous cases, there was a possibility that an apology could be used as evidence in court to determine legal liability. This resulted in people’s reluctance to make apologies, especially in cases concerning medical negligence and other mistakes that led to injuries or death as they feared involvement in law suits or failed insurance claims.
The government first started to consider bringing in such legislation after the 2012 Lamma ferry collision. At the time, the former Marine Department chief Francis Liu Hon-por took eight months to give an apology to the public. Liu said this was because he needed to take legal advice.
Such an attitude was not conducive to preventing the escalation of disputes or their amicable resolution, the government said in a Legislative Council document. “On the contrary, anxiety and anger on the part of victims or their families might increase if there is no sign of regret or expressions of sorrow from the opposite party,” it stressed.
Apology laws are already in place in common law jurisdictions. At present, apology legislation exists in over 30 US states, most provinces and territories of Canada. Australia and Scotland also have such laws.
The secretary for justice cited studies and experience in overseas jurisdictions. These show that the enactment of apology legislation is conducive to preventing the escalation of disputes. It also helps in resolving disputes by removing disincentives for people to make apologies.
However, despite this law, immunity is not absolute. Any statement of fact contained within an apology could be admissible in court in specific circumstances, such as if no other evidence is available.
This will only happen when the judge considered it “just and equitable” to do so or "having regard to the public interest or the interests of the administration of justice", according to Yuen.
Some legislators voiced reservations. A group of them argued that the wording of the bill had been too vague.
Business and Professionals Alliance for Hong Kong lawmaker Abraham Shek Lai-him refused to support the bill, arguing it could lead to “insincere apologies”.
The law will come into effect once it is gazetted. The LegCo Secretariat is expected to gazette bills 21 days after they have been passed.
The Ombudsman Connie Lau Yin-hing welcomed the new law. "We believe that the enactment of the Apology Ordinance, which the Office of the Ombudsman has strongly advocated, will encourage government departments and public organizations to be more forthcoming in extending apologies where they are due,” Lau said.
This will help ease the sentiments of aggrieved citizens and facilitate the settlement of disputes. It will also restore social cohesion and mutual trust, she added.
The 2016-17 year saw 248 cases concluded by the Office of the Ombudsman where apologies were given by the organizations under complaint. Some 92.7 percent (230 cases) were given in the course of or after intervention by the office, according to official statistics.