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Parties in conflict and disputes rarely apologize to one another. No one wants to admit liability, and saying sorry is often seen as an admission of liability.
On 13 July 2017, the Legislative Council of Hong Kong passed the Apology Bill (soon to be the Apology Ordinance) to enable parties to apologize without fear of legal implications.
Historically, an apology is seen to be an implied admission of fault and/or liability. Such apology, whether written or oral, may constitute evidence of liability in civil proceedings.
Parties in dispute are therefore constantly advised by lawyers not to apologize for their actions, even if the party is in the wrong. The fear of legal implications overrode morality and common decency.
The Apology Ordinance
Under the Apology Ordinance, an apology is defined as an expression of regret, sympathy or benevolence. The apology need not be in writing. It can be oral or by conduct.
If a party has apologized, the Apology Ordinance provides that the fact of that apology will not constitute an express or implied admission of the person’s fault or liability and must not be taken into account in determining fault, liability or any other issue in connection with the matter to the prejudice of the person.
While evidence of an apology made by a person is not normally admissible as evidence for determining fault, the Apology Ordinance makes an exception. The exception is this:
If there is no other evidence available for determining an issue, it is possible for statements of fact contained in an apology to be admitted as evidence in the proceedings, provided that it is just and equitable to do so.
The following example may trigger the exception. One party may say to another:
“I am sorry about what has happened”
The above would not normally be admissible as evidence on liability. However, the situation may be different if the party apologizing goes on to say the following:
“The goods were not delivered to you because we had inadequate staff on that day.”
The above might be admissible as evidence even if the apology itself is not, particularly if the fact of adequate or inadequate staff became a relevant issue in civil proceedings and this was the only piece of evidence available in the proceedings. Clearly, this exception means that parties should take great care in how they apologize and what they should include in their apology.
The Apology Ordinance also has potential impact upon insurance coverage.
Section 10 of the Apology Ordinance provides that an apology does not render void or affect any insurance cover, compensation or other form of benefit for any person in connection with the matter. There is also an express prohibition against attempting to “contract out” of this section by, for example, a disclaimer or waiver of rights. This section also takes effect whether or not the contract of insurance was entered into before or after the commencement date of the Apology Ordinance.
Liability insurance policies typically contain conditions that an insured party shall not make any admissions of liability or prejudice the claim without the insurer’s prior consent. While Section 10 may avoid an admission of liability, potential problems may arise if the insured prejudices the claim by making an apology which contains facts that are later ruled as admissible by the Court for the reasons set out above. In such circumstances, there may be argument as to whether the additional facts appended to the apology can properly be regarded as being part and parcel of the apology itself.
When Will It Take Effect?
It is currently unclear as to the commencement date of the Apology Ordinance although it is expected to come into effect later this year (2017) or early next year (2018).
With the implementation of the Apology Ordinance, being the first jurisdiction in Asia to do so, Hong Kong is leading and consolidating its position as one of the foremost centers in the Asia region for mediation and dispute resolution.
Although similar legislations have been passed in the United States, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom, only time will tell whether the Apology Ordinance will influence parties in Hong Kong to more readily apologise to each other for wrongful conduct.
What should be quite clear however is that making an apology is not all without its risks and parties should continue to take proper legal advice before doing so.