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COVID-19 – Hong Kong Courts set for phased reopening from May

23 April 2020. Published by Jonathan Crompton, Partner and Sakshi Buttoo, Legal Manager

On 22 April 2020, the Hong Kong Judiciary announced that the general adjourned period ("GAP") for court proceedings, which started on 29 January 2020, will end on 3 May 2020.

Stressing that the health and safety of court users, the Judiciary's staff and Judges and Judicial Officers ("JJOs") remains paramount, the Judiciary will move to a phased reintroduction of general business. Court proceedings and registries will reopen on a staggered basis from 4 and 6 May 2020 respectively.

The first stage of the re-opening will involve the resumption of both civil and criminal proceedings after an "appropriate buffer period", and the re-opening of court registries starting with the Court of Final Appeal, Court of First Instance and District Court in the week commencing 4 May 2020. The Family Court and Lands Tribunal registries will re-open in the week commencing 11 May 2020, and Magistrates' Courts, Small Claims Tribunal and Labour Tribunal registries (among others) in the week commencing 18 May 2020.

The Judiciary's announcement can be found here.

A phased re-opening

In addition to  a staggered resumption of business, in keeping with Hong Kong's continuing practice of social distancing, court business will initially be conducted with reduced capacity and adopting a "flexible and multi-pronged" approach.

The opening hours of the court registries and accounts offices will be reduced to 9:30am to 12:30pm until further notice. Preventative and crowd management measures will remain in place and jury trials will start only "after May".

For civil proceedings, the flexible and multi-pronged approach will include active management by JJOs, including the use of video conferencing facilities ("VCF"), hearings by telephone and disposing of cases on paper as far as possible and where the JJO deems appropriate.

Comment

Those who have been following our updates on the Hong Kong courts (available through the RPC COVID-19 Content Hub), will know that during the GAP the Hong Kong Judiciary has been focusing on hearings and matters it has defined as 'urgent and essential'. It has also adopted a measured increase in the use of video conferencing, telephone hearings and resolving applications 'on the papers' where appropriate.

The Judiciary's latest announcement will be welcomed by businesses and individuals. We have seen an increase in commercial parties re-negotiating their contracts in circumstances where one party has defaulted on its obligations or is on the brink of default or insolvency because of the financial impacts of COVID-19. A resumption of court services will benefit parties that require the assistance or intervention of the Hong Kong courts for matters which do not fit within the definition of 'urgent and essential' business, those with cases currently adjourned, and others who would simply like to be able to back their negotiations with the prospect of pursuing their legal rights through the courts in the normal way.

The buffer period should also be welcomed by lawyers and clients alike as it gives solicitors and counsel time to prepare for resumed hearings. As 30 April and 1 May 2020 are both public holidays in Hong Kong, there are only four business days before the phased re-opening is due to begin.

This plan is, of course, subject to change if Hong Kong experiences a further increase in the number of confirmed COVID-19 infections. The Judiciary previously announced an end to the GAP before Hong Kong experienced a 'second wave' of COVID-19. However, given the consistently low number of confirmed infections in Hong Kong recently (with single digit increases since 13 April 2020), we are hopeful that this time the Courts will slowly begin returning to normal operations.

In the meantime, we will publish relevant updates if anything changes, and are available to assist clients if needed.