Hong Kong Courts – Expansion of use of remote hearings
As expected, the judiciary in Hong Kong has announced that it will expand the use of remote hearings for civil cases. The first 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 (GAP), when the courts were generally closed as a result of COVID-19, save for urgent and essential court business. The GAP came to an end on 3 May 2020.
While the courts are gradually getting back to normality, the priority is to conduct court business in a way which minimises public health risks as far as possible. While confirmed reported cases of COVID-19 remain very low, the authorities are still reporting a small number of imported cases involving returning residents and occasional local clusters.
Expansion of use of remote hearings
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 hearings 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 – 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, however, the judiciary is due to announce a Guidance Note (Phase 2) extending the use of remote hearings to civil cases in the District Courts and the Family Court of Hong Kong.
To date, the videoconferencing facilities used by the judiciary have only been accessible through connections using videoconferencing hardware, as opposed to compatible software solutions. In a change of pace, however, the judiciary has announced that, from later this month, court users should be able to access the courts' videoconferencing facilities using alternative resources, including software-server solutions with password authentication. It is understood that this option will allow court users to use personal devices (which have the appropriate software installed) to connect to the courts' videoconferencing facilities using a valid meeting ID and passcode.
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 most 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.
Developments are very much a work in progress but, in the current climate, where the Hong Kong government is facing a ream of other, 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 going forward.
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A version of this article was originally published in the Litigation Newsletter of the International Law Office - www.internationallawoffice.com
This article is intended to give general information only. It is not a complete statement of the law. It is not intended to be relied upon or to be a substitute for legal advice in relation to particular circumstances.