The High Court recently approved a novel order providing for service of various court documents on unnamed defendants by allowing the plaintiff to effect service by (among other means) using a quick response code. The proceedings arose out of protests at the airport in 2019 and, given the background to the case and the high-profile nature of the proceedings, the court was satisfied that service of the court documents should reasonably be expected to come to the attention of the defendants.
Given the severity of the 'fourth wave' of COVID-19 which Hong Kong is currently experiencing, it became inevitable that the government would roll out tougher social distancing measures and that the courts would follow suit. On 1 December 2020 the judiciary issued its latest notification for stakeholders about the general arrangement of court and registries business. The courts and their registries very much remain open for business, but they are not dropping their guard.
The High Court recently ordered the continuation of various injunction orders restraining unnamed defendants from engaging in 'doxxing' directed at judges and judicial officers in Hong Kong, together with their spouses and immediate family members. The court's decision follows an increase in such activity in connection with certain verdicts and sentences in cases where persons have been charged with offences arising out of protests or related public order incidents.
Some eight months after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the courts officially resumed normal business in mid-September 2020. Normal court registry services resumed from about 28 September 2020, together with the cessation of 'ticketing arrangements', the continuation of enhanced social distancing and the introduction of special queuing arrangements for the registries and accounts offices of the High Court, the District Court, the Family Court and the Lands Tribunal.
The judiciary in Hong Kong recently published a Guidance Note for Case Settlement Conference in Civil Cases in the District Court. The guidance note extends a pilot scheme for facilitating settlement in general civil cases in the District Court. While facilitating the settlement of certain civil disputes is a laudable aim and part of the underlying objectives in the court rules, the guidance note appears to raise more questions than it answers.
The High Court recently dismissed a plaintiff company's application to continue an ex parte injunction to restrain the defendant bank from presenting a winding-up petition against the company. The company claimed that it had already secured the bank's debt and that, therefore, the bank could not demonstrate that it was unable to pay its debts for the purposes of Section 178(1)(a) of the Companies (Winding Up and Miscellaneous Provisions) Ordinance (Cap 32).
In a recent case, the High Court allowed the defendants' applications to dismiss the plaintiff's two actions on the ground of abuse of process – in particular, given that no procedural step had been taken by the parties since 1 April 2009, just before the civil procedure reforms came into effect in Hong Kong. Although each application for dismissal based on abuse of process turns on its facts, this case demonstrates that egregious delay and inaction can prove fatal.
The High Court recently allowed a defendant to rely on an expert's reports at trial, even though the expert witness had failed to verify his reports with a statement of truth or include a declaration that he agreed to be bound by the Code of Conduct for Expert Witnesses. In the normal course of events, an expert report that lacks a statement of truth or a declaration will be inadmissible.
Since the general adjourned period (GAP) ended on 3 May 2020, when the courts resumed normal business in Hong Kong, reported cases of COVID-19 infection have approximately tripled. At the time of writing, Hong Kong is experiencing a 'third wave' of infections. The next few weeks appear to be crucial in ascertaining whether the rate of infection will ease – failing which court users face the possibility of another GAP, during which the courts could close again save for urgent and essential court business.
In Hwang v Golden Electronics Inc, the Court of First Instance of the High Court has approved a novel order allowing the plaintiffs to serve certain court documents on several of the defendants using a data room. The order provides that the plaintiffs shall send a court-approved letter by post or email to the defendants providing a link to the data room and, by separate post or email, an access code with instructions to access the data room.
A second guidance note on the use of remote hearings in civil proceedings took effect on 15 June 2020. The guidance note (representing Phase 2) provides for expanded videoconferencing facilities and telephone hearings with respect to the civil business of the first-instance courts and the Court of Appeal. Phase 2 is to be read together with the Phase 1 guidance note issued on 2 April 2020. Phase 2 is more comprehensive and provides more options for connecting with the courts' videoconferencing facilities.
As expected, the judiciary in Hong Kong has announced that it will expand the use of remote hearings for civil cases. To date, under the Guidance Note for Remote Hearings for Civil Business in the High Court (Phase 1) – which came into effect during the general adjourned period – remote hearings using videoconferencing facilities have focused on civil hearings in the High Court involving interlocutory applications or appeals that can be decided on documents and legal submissions.
The general adjourned period, during which the courts in Hong Kong were closed save for urgent and essential court business, ended on 4 May 2020. From that date, the civil courts generally resumed normal business, although certain public health measures remain in place and it will take some time before the backlog of civil cases is cleared, particularly as the courts' resources were already stretched before COVID-19.
In Hong Kong, the courts have generally been closed, save for urgent and essential court business, as a result of COVID-19. Details have been set out in various public notifications issued from time to time by the judiciary administration. However, a court has held that the general adjourned period (GAP) does not generally extend the duration of an injunction granted on an urgent basis before the GAP commenced and listed for a return date (for continuation or discharge) that falls during the GAP.
Given the extended general adjourned period, during which the courts in Hong Kong have been closed except for urgent and essential court business, the judiciary has adopted an incremental approach to the use of technology for remote hearings. Set against the background of the COVID-19 public health emergency, the new Guidance Note for Remote Hearings for Civil Business in the High Court represents Phase 1 of the courts' adoption of IT initiatives for civil proceedings in Hong Kong.
The 'general adjourned period' (GAP) during which the courts in Hong Kong have been closed, save for urgent and essential court business, has been extended to 13 April 2020. The GAP is a consequence of the extraordinary measures adopted in Hong Kong to combat the coronavirus public health emergency.
The High Court recently decided that it can, as part of its case management powers and of its own volition, order that a directions hearing take place by means of a telephone conference without the physical presence in court of the parties or their legal representatives. The court's decision is set against the background of the extraordinary measures adopted in Hong Kong to combat the coronavirus public health emergency.
The High Court has rejected an application for summary judgment of a claim to release money frozen by a bank. This was in the context of an investigation into the alleged use of the account for criminal activity. In its defence, the bank argued that the customer agreement contained an implied term that the bank could act on evidence of suspected fraudulent conduct to suspend operation of the account.
In Poon v Poon, the defendant successfully applied to have certain paragraphs excluded from witness statements filed on behalf of the plaintiff on the basis that they referred to without prejudice conversations and meetings. The judgment applies established principles that underpin the protection given to without prejudice communications and demonstrates the court's reluctance to allow a party to 'cherry pick' from parts of wide-ranging discussions that were clearly undertaken on a without prejudice basis.
Mathnasium Center Licensing, LLC v Chang is another recent example of the courts sentencing makers of false statements of truth to a period of imprisonment for contempt of court. In this case, the defendant signed a false statement of truth in a defence filed on behalf of a company which he controlled and which was being sued by the plaintiff. The court found that it was beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant must have known about the falsity of the admission and thus found him to be in contempt of court.
The Court of Appeal has refused permission to appeal an apparently wide-ranging order for the production of documents made in favour of the liquidators in China Medical Technologies Inc v Tsang. Despite the respondent's best efforts, the Court of Appeal decided that the issues stated to arise out of its judgment did not raise questions of great general or public importance. The outcome of the appeal is bolstered by a legislative amendment which amounts to a more coextensive power.
In China Medical Technologies Inc (In Liquidation) v Bank of East Asia Ltd, the court granted an ex parte order extending the validity of a writ, effectively giving the plaintiffs an additional year in which to effect service. The High Court has now discharged that order with the consequences that service was set aside and the action dismissed. This is the latest in a number of similar decisions and suggests that the courts will in future scrutinise extension applications much more closely.
The High Court recently rejected a defendant solicitors' firm's application to strike out a plaintiff's claim on the ground that it was commenced too late. Given the relatively high threshold in Hong Kong for an applicant to succeed with an application to strike out a claim before trial, the court's decision is not surprising. However, the written reasons given in the decision are a useful analysis of the legal principles involved in determining when a cause of action accrues for the tort of negligence.
The High Court has once again been asked to review its jurisdiction to grant permission to issue subpoenas directed at witnesses. In this case, the court granted permission to issue two subpoenas directed at two senior doctors, requiring them to give evidence (supported by specified documents) in aid of a registered dentist's court challenge arising out of disciplinary proceedings against him. The decision reiterates the relatively low threshold for the issue of subpoenas, while also illustrating their possible tactical use.
The High Court recently considered a prospective witness's application to set aside a subpoena directed at him. The subpoena combined directions to the witness to give evidence at trial on behalf of the plaintiff and to produce the originals of certain transaction documents. The court set aside the part of the subpoena directed at giving evidence but not the part directed at producing documents. The decision provides useful guidance as to the general practice for issuing subpoenas.
The issue of liability for costs plays a big part in the settlement of protracted civil litigation in Hong Kong. In particular, where the parties refuse to bear their own costs, which party will pay the other's costs becomes an important consideration. As another recent case demonstrates, without prejudice settlement offers can (among other things) seek to protect a party's position as to costs. Such offers are a common feature of the local litigation landscape for good reason.
In a recent case, the High Court allowed the plaintiff's application for an order that the first defendant and a representative of the second defendant attend a court hearing to be cross-examined on affirmations made by them in the proceedings. The case is a timely reminder of the seriousness of making affidavits or affirmations and of the need to be mindful of the documents to which they refer.
The High Court recently reiterated the general principles which govern its power to order a non-party to pay the costs of another party to court proceedings. The court's power is statutory but the general principles that govern the exercise of its discretion arise out of case law. The case law demonstrates that the court's discretion to make an order for costs against a non-party is wide. The interests of justice are paramount.
A High Court judge recently dismissed a party's appeal against a refusal to grant permission to issue subpoenas directed at another party's legal representatives. At the same time, the judge reminded litigants and their legal representatives that subpoenas (directing a witness to attend court to give evidence, produce documents or do both) should be issued in a timely manner, and that late subpoenas which upset the court's case management of trial dates are likely to be frowned upon.
The High Court recently considered the proper basis for the distribution of money in the client account of a closed law firm. The money is held by the relevant regulator on trust for the persons beneficially entitled to it – namely, the former clients. Where there is a shortfall between the verified claims of former clients and the balance in the client account, the court may need to direct how the money should be distributed.
First Asia Finance International Ltd v Tso Au Yim & Yeung appears to be another example of a misconceived claim against a defendant solicitors' firm. In this case, the court held that the solicitors owed no duty of care to the plaintiff company (which was not a client) with respect to the preparation of a settlement agreement. The plaintiff also failed with a claim that it had informally retained the defendant solicitors with respect to the drafting of the settlement agreement.
Securities and Futures Commission v Sun Min is another recent example of the Securities and Futures Commission using Section 213(2)(b) of the Securities and Futures Ordinance to obtain restitution, in the form of so-called 'restorative' orders, on behalf of counterparties to impugned transactions. What is interesting about this particular case is that the judge expressed some concern as to whether the amount of restoration sought might result in a windfall for the counterparties involved.
In another significant development in the Securities and Futures Commission's efforts to combat market misconduct-type activity involving listed shares in Hong Kong, the lead market regulator has commenced civil proceedings under Section 213 of the Securities and Futures Ordinance in respect of China Forestry Holdings Co Ltd (in official liquidation). The regulator's civil complaint also names two co-sponsors and the auditor involved with the company's initial public offering.
Defendants will welcome the recent decision in Bank of China (Hong Kong) Ltd v Ho Chi Lui, in which a Hong Kong judge struck out court proceedings that the plaintiff allowed to remain inactive for over 14 years. The decision is another illustration of the courts' willingness to strike out stale claims in cases of egregious delay, following the landmark Court of Final Appeal decision in Wing Fai Construction Co Ltd v Yip Kwong Robert.
The Court of Appeal recently handed down three consistent decisions confirming that prime rate plus 1% should continue to be used as the starting point for awarding pre-judgment interest on damages awarded by the courts in civil disputes. The court considered that there was insufficient evidence to show clearly that prime rate is no longer relevant or rarely used in Hong Kong.
Defendants in Hong Kong are making good use of Calderbank offers – that is, offers without prejudice save as to costs – as an alternative to, or in tandem with, the procedural regime for sanctioned payments into court and sanctioned offers that was introduced as part of the court rules seven years ago. This has led to some interesting disputes between parties as to who should bear liability for the legal costs.
The Securities and Futures Commission has commenced its first set of proceedings in the Market Misconduct Tribunal against a listed company for allegedly failing to disclose price-sensitive inside information to the public as soon as reasonably practicable, contrary to the Securities and Futures Ordinance. In the absence of a formal class action regime in Hong Kong, the commission has made headlines in bringing some of the highest-profile litigation in this jurisdiction.
Following the introduction of formal sanctioned payments and sanctioned offers, it has not been entirely clear to what extent pre-trial Calderbank offers (without prejudice save as to costs) still provide costs protection for an offeror. A recent case confirms that in certain circumstances, a Calderbank offer is appropriate and can provide costs protection for the offeror.