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09 June 2020
As expected, the judiciary in Hong Kong has announced that it will expand the use of remote hearings for civil cases. The Guidance Note for Remote Hearings for Civil Business in the High Court (Phase 1) came into effect on 3 April 2020. This was during the general adjourned period, when the courts were generally closed as a result of COVID-19, save for urgent and essential court business. The general adjourned period came to an end on 3 May 2020. While the courts are getting back to some normality, the priority is to conduct court business in such a way as to minimise public health risks as far as possible. While confirmed reported cases of COVID-19 had dropped to almost zero, there are still new imported cases involving some returning residents. Further, occasional suspected clusters of local cases of infection, involving family members or work colleagues, are still occurring.
It is against this background that the judiciary has announced that it will soon expand the use of videoconferencing facilities for more types of civil hearing in the High Court. To date, under Phase 1 of the guidance note, 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, as opposed to requiring live oral evidence of witnesses – these remote hearings have generally involved oral submissions that can be concluded within two hours.
Given the environment in which the courts are operating and the public health measures that are likely to remain in place for some time, the judiciary is also due to announce a Guidance Note for Remote Hearings for Civil Business in the Civil Courts (Phase 2) – this will (among other things) extend the use of remote hearings to civil cases in the District Court and the Family Court in Hong Kong (both of which are located in the same court building).
The videoconferencing facilities used by the judiciary so far can be accessed only through connections using videoconferencing hardware as opposed to compatible software solutions.
The judiciary has announced that by the end of June 2020, court users should be able to access the courts' videoconferencing facilities using an alternative technical option involving (for example) software-server solutions with authentication by means of account passwords. It is understood that this option will allow court users to use personal computer devices (which have the appropriate software installed) to connect to the courts' videoconferencing facilities. Only court users using connection requests with a valid meeting ID and passcode will be able to conduct civil hearings by means of the courts' videoconferencing facilities.
For now, commercial online real-time videoconferencing facilities that involve the use of cloud services will not be used by the courts until certain security issues have been addressed.
Hong Kong has been slow to embrace technology in the judicial system and is therefore behind the curve compared with some other principal common law jurisdictions. COVID-19 has perhaps provided a much-needed catalyst for change in this respect. That said, these developments are consistent with the judiciary's gradual and incremental approach to the development of IT and videoconferencing facilities in the courts.(1)
Developments are very much a work in progress but, in the current circumstances where the government is facing a number of more serious and pressing issues, they point to the way forward. Such are the backlog of civil cases and waiting times for court hearings, it is hoped that there will be greater use of videoconferencing facilities and (where appropriate) disposal of matters based on the papers.
For further information on this topic please contact Antony Sassi or David Smyth at RPC by telephone (+852 2216 7000) or email (email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org). The RPC website can be accessed at www.rpc.co.uk.
(1) See the Hong Kong Judiciary website – "Remote Hearings for Civil Business in the High Court" (Guidance Note and Technical Specifications).
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