Sorry no longer the hardest word

Top News | Phoebe Ng Jul 14, 2017
Saying sorry can no longer be used against you as a confession of wrongdoing in legal battles under a new law.

The Apology Bill was passed in the Legislative Council yesterday, making Hong Kong the first jurisdiction in Asia to enact the so-called "sorry law."

The new legislation shields apologies from being submitted as court evidence or "admission of liability."

But it does not apply to criminal charges or in "exceptional cases" including when there is no other proof available.

The government's decision to promote the legislation was driven by the 2012 Lamma ferry disaster when Francis Liu Hon-por, who headed Marine Department at the time, refrained from making any apology for almost eight months.

He had expressed sympathy after the accident, which killed 39 people, but said he had to seek legal advice before saying sorry as he feared "possible problems" could arise.

The bill was passed by with 46 in favor and just two against. But despite the large majority support for the bill, several lawmakers voiced concerns that it would make it easier for wrongdoers - especially those in public office - to dodge their responsibilities.

Reassuring critics, Justice Secretary Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung: "The government do not [promote the bill] to protect themselves," adding the "important notion" that everyone is equal before the law.

Instead, the government's goal was to "clear the legal obstacles" which often inhibit people from apologizing even if they want to do so. Yuen said the right to litigate and seek claims would not be affected by the new law.

The bill protects an apology from being used as detrimental evidence in civil proceedings, including disciplinary and regulatory cases. It excludes criminal proceedings, those of the Legislative Council and applicable proceedings of exceptional cases. It would be up to decision makers - whether a court, tribunal or arbitrator - to decide whether a particular case was "just and equitable" enough to constitute an exception.

"If we remove the discretion altogether, we will risk that this provision will become unconstitutional and give rise to more uncertainties," Yuen said. He hoped the bill would result in less litigation involving such incidents as medical negligence allegations or car crashes.

In March, a mother Tang Kwai-sze was dying from liver failure as a result of medical mishaps and is still recovering following two liver transplants.

United Christian Hospital subsequently apologized to the family.

Other, lawmakers including Abraham Shek Lai-him remained skeptical. Even though Australia, Canada and Britain had already introduced apology legislation, Shek said the idea contravened Hong Kong society's beliefs. "In Chinese culture we are taught to be remorseful when saying sorry," he said.

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June 2018