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The Government today announced the establishment of a LawTech Fund to help law firms and barristers' chambers procure and upgrade information technology (IT) systems and arrange lawtech training courses for their staff. In a statement, the Department of Justice said the LawTech Fund, established under the Anti-epidemic Fund, will be open for applications from April 28 and cater to small and medium-size law firms as well as barristers’ chambers. Applications will be accepted for two months and those eligible can receive a reimbursement of up to $50,000. The Law Society of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Bar Association will establish a joint committee to assess the applications and arrange funding disbursement. More than 60% of law firms and 50% of barristers' chambers in Hong Kong are expected to benefit from the funding. As for funding eligibility, law firms or chambers must have five or fewer practising lawyers as at April 8 and at the time of granting the subsidy. The subsidies must be used for procuring and upgrading IT systems, including but not confined to video-conferencing facilities. The lawtech training that is to receive the subsidy must be recognised and approved by the joint committee. The application form and guidance notes are available at the homepages of the Law Society and the Bar Association. The Secretary for Justice has given an outline of the fund and discussed lawtech in her blog.
Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng today refuted suggestions that the law prohibiting group gatherings to combat the COVID-19 epidemic was being misused to crack down on protests and people's freedoms. During a media session, Ms Cheng responded to criticisms from some legislators that Police were abusing the measure to clamp down on protests. She said: “The Government respects and protects the freedoms that are set out in our laws, Basic Law and the Hong Kong Bill of Rights Ordinance. However, these freedoms are not absolute. Insofar as they violate the laws, then of course appropriate actions will have to be taken.” The Government had earlier introduced the Prevention & Control of Disease (Prohibition on Group Gathering) Regulation (Cap. 599G) to prohibit group gatherings with more than four people in public places with a view to combating COVID-19. The regulation was made in accordance with the Prevention & Control of Disease Ordinance (Cap. 599). “Cap. 599G is enforced under Cap. 599 as a matter of the public health emergency situation that is facing Hong Kong at the moment. It is promulgated to encourage social distancing. It is not with any other motive except for the safety and health of the people in Hong Kong. “I hope that you will all comply with it in spirit and in form, so that you will not gather and thereby extend Hong Kong's position in this public health emergency situation. That is the only way by which we can get back to normal life as soon as possible.” In response to a reporter's question on the relevant provisions in the Basic Law that pertain to the Liaison Office of the Central People's Government in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, Ms Cheng remarked that the liaison office must also comply with Hong Kong laws. “The Central People's Government as defined in the Constitution Law is actually the State Council, and therefore when one looks at the whole thing about the Constitution Law, Article 5 of the Constitution Law states unequivocally that every body that is set up will have to comply with the relevant laws and the Constitution Law. “In other words, the liaison office will have to obey and comply with the laws in Hong Kong.”
Police today announced its decision to prohibit two public meetings and object to a public procession intended to be held on Hong Kong Island on May 1. Upon risk assessment, Police said it regarded that the public meetings and procession are high-risk activities with crowd gatherings. Police have grounds to believe that such activities do not only increase the risk of infecting participants and other people with COVID-19, but pose a serious threat to the lives and health of all citizens, jeopardising public safety and affecting the rights of others. Police emphasised that it believed it is necessary to prohibit the public meetings and object to the public procession in accordance with the Public Order Ordinance for maintaining public order and public safety as well as protecting the rights and freedom of others. Police reminded the public that taking part in an unauthorised assembly is a criminal offence and those found guilty could be liable to five years’ imprisonment.
The Judiciary today announced all court proceedings will resume as safely as circumstances permit from May 4. Court and tribunal registries will reopen in stages from May 6, including the registries of the Court of Final Appeal and the High Court. Having regard to the public health situation and the need for social distancing, court business will initially be conducted under a reduced capacity. The Judiciary will continue to put in place appropriate preventive and crowd management measures. The measures include requiring all people entering judiciary premises to undergo temperature checks and wear face masks. They also include putting in place queuing, ticketing and triage systems, designated entry and exit points as well as admission control to limit the number of court users entering and remaining on judiciary premises. To maintain social distancing, chessboard seating arrangements will continue to be adopted in courtrooms and court lobbies will reduce seating capacity by half. Additionally, capacity limits will be set for areas such as court registries and accounts offices to avoid crowding.
Police today welcomed the Communications Authority’s decision that Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) should be seriously warned regarding complaints against an episode of its programme Pentaprism broadcast on November 20, 2019. Police said it had taken note of the press release issued by the authority on April 20 about its decision.     The authority found that the host’s remarks made in the programme were irresponsible and could be regarded as hate speech with the effect of inciting hatred against Police. The remarks were also unfair to and were capable of adversely affecting Police’s reputation. The authority took the view that the complaints in respect of accuracy, incitement of hatred and fairness were substantiated and decided that RTHK should be seriously warned.     Since the anti-extradition bill protests in June last year, rumours have been circulating to defame and smear Police in an attempt to disrupt its relations with the community, the force said. Police reiterated that they are willing to accept criticisms which are constructive and based on goodwill, but they do not accept inaccurate or misleading reports and remarks, and will follow up as appropriate.
The Security Bureau said Police have the duty to take lawful measures for apprehending people when sufficient grounds exist. The bureau issued the statement in response to media inquiries regarding a number of people arrested by Police today in connection with organising and participating in unauthorised assemblies. It emphasised that under the Police Force Ordinance, Police have the duty to take lawful measures for apprehending all persons whom it is lawful to apprehend and for whose apprehension sufficient grounds exist. The bureau noted that the relevant arrests were made based on evidence from investigations and strictly according to the laws in force. It pointed out that in Hong Kong, everyone is equal before the law and that no one is above it nor can break it without facing consequences. The bureau explained that if there is evidence that anyone violates the law, regardless of their status or background, they must face justice. No one has any special privileges. Police will handle the case in a fair, just and impartial manner in accordance with the law, it added.
Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng today emphasised that Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma had stated he has not experienced interference from Mainland authorities. Speaking to the media at the Legislative Council, Ms Cheng called on the public to read the Chief Justice’s statement in response to a media report about Hong Kong’s judicial independence. Ms Cheng said: "The Chief Justice stated that since his taking office in 2010, he has not encountered nor experienced any interference from the Mainland authorities in any shape or form that affects judicial independence, including the appointment of judges. "Nothing is better than the direct evidence of the Chief Justice himself telling us that there is not any such interference."
The Immigration Department today reminded the public to stay vigilant against phone scammers claiming to be from the department. The department said victims in recent cases received pre-recorded voice calls from scammers posing as immigration officers informing them that they would have immigration restrictions imposed on them. Such calls were then transferred to another scammer posing as a non-local law enforcement officer who asked the call recipient to provide sensitive information such as personal particulars, bank account numbers and passwords. The department stressed that it does not make any pre-recorded voice calls to the public, nor will it transfer calls to other non-local authorities or ask the call recipient to provide information such as bank account numbers and passwords. It reminded people to verify the identity of a caller and not to disclose their personal information. If people have any doubts about a call, they should immediately report it to Police.
In view of the severe economic repercussions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic globally and locally, the Government announced another package of measures to support the affected individuals and businesses last Wednesday. Two of which are particularly relevant to the legal and dispute resolution sector - the LawTech Fund and the COVID-19 Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) Scheme. The LawTech Fund was briefly introduced in this blog a few days ago. Today, I would like to give an online explanation of the COVID-19 ODR. In anticipation of an upsurge of disputes arising from or relating to COVID-19, the scheme aims to provide speedy and cost-effective means to resolve such disputes, especially for those involving micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) that may be adversely affected or hard hit by the pandemic. The scheme will engage eBRAM (electronic Business Related Arbitration & Mediation system) to provide ODR services to the general public and businesses, in particular MSMEs, involved in low value disputes. The scheme plans to cover COVID-19 related disputes with the claim amount for each case to be capped at $500,000. Either one of the parties (claimant or respondent) must be a Hong Kong resident or company and they will only be required to each pay $200 registration fees. Under the scheme, the parties are required to enter into a dispute resolution agreement to record their consent. The process to be adopted is a multi-tiered dispute resolution mechanism where the parties will first attempt to negotiate their disputes, followed by mediation and if that does not result in settlement, then subsequently to arbitration for a final and binding award. This is in line with the "Mediate First" policy that we have been advocating under our "Mediate First" Pledge Programmes. The scheme aims to offer a fast and effective means to resolve disputes among parties. Each tier of dispute resolution will be conducted within a limited time. The tiers are devised with a view to avoiding disputes and differences from being entrenched. If the disputes can be resolved successfully and amicably through negotiation or mediation, we hope it will help build and reinforce a harmonious society and enable the parties to preserve their long term business relationship. We also hope the scheme will have the benefit of job creation and job advancement for mediators and arbitrators (including their pupils). Parties are at liberty to appoint the third party neutral of their choice and if no agreement is reached, there will be a mechanism for appointment. The third party neutrals and the parties or their representatives can still handle cases under the social distancing measures online and indeed to practice on the handling of cases online. We would like the scheme to be launched in June if funding is provided in April. It is a global trend to develop and use ODR to provide reliable and efficient platform to facilitate alternative dispute resolution. The scheme is in line with the development under Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation's Collaborative Framework on ODR (APEC Framework), with MSMEs as the major beneficiary. The mechanism of adopting negotiation and mediation in the first stage under the APEC Framework is also to prevent entrenched views on the conflicts, thereby helping to create harmony in society. Some forms of alternative dispute resolution, such as mediation, are a more cost-effective way to resolve disputes. The costs of mediation are almost always lower than the disputed amounts, making it an economical way to resolve disputes. Mediation can save time too. Some cases may be resolved following just one day of mediation. LawTech has greatly helped the development of dispute resolution services. The establishment of a safe, reliable and credible platform to provide enterprises with convenient and cost-effective online dispute resolution will become a new trend. It is one of the major long-term policy objectives of the Department of Justice (DoJ) in recent years to enhance and promote Hong Kong's status as an international legal hub for deal-making and dispute resolution. A further promotion of the use of ODR will help consolidate Hong Kong's position as an international business and financial centre. The social media accounts of the DoJ's IDAR Office have been introducing the procedure, characteristics and benefits of mediation and arbitration. You may wish to visit the dedicated pages of the IDAR Office to keep abreast of the dispute resolution services. In addition to the relief measures announced by the Government, the DoJ has also taken the initiative to speed up payment of fees to counsel. Counsel engaged by the DoJ could submit their interim fee notes together with the interim case reports after certain work has been completed. Each case will be considered individually on a case-by-case basis and interim payments could be made. I have enquired and am also glad to learn from the Legal Aid Department and the Duty Lawyer Service that they made similar arrangements. We are confident that Hong Kong can weather the storm with our fundamental strengths and resilience. We also trust that we would overcome this unprecedented challenge by standing in solidarity. Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng wrote this article and posted it on her blog on April 13.
The onset of COVID-19 has severely affected our economy and the legal sector was not spared. I have discussed with some of the representatives from the industry and we have carefully considered their suggestions with relevant government departments. On Wednesday, the Government announced another package of measures to support individuals and businesses affected by COVID-19. Two of the measures are relevant to the legal sector: the establishment of LawTech Fund and the COVID-19 Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) Scheme. Today, I would like to share with you the arrangement of the LawTech Fund. The Government always attaches great importance to LawTech. In her 2018 Policy Address, the Chief Executive supported the development of an online platform by non-government organisations to facilitate the provision of efficient and cost-effective online dispute resolution services in Hong Kong. The Government would allocate funding for the development of this project. At the Ceremonial Opening of the Legal Year 2019, I emphasised the importance of making use of technology in providing legal services, citing the United Nations General Assembly in 2016 in observing that online dispute resolution "can assist the parties in resolving the dispute in a simple, fast, flexible, and secure manner, without the need for physical presence at a meeting or hearing". The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation had responded to the call and embarked on a project to establish an ODR framework with micro, small and medium-sized enterprises as major beneficiaries. Almost 18% of the annual caseload of the courts at all levels have been affected in the first two months of the General Adjourned Period since January 29. The Judiciary has earlier started using video-conferencing facilities for remote hearings on suitable civil cases at the High Court. The media reported the first hearing conducted through video-conferencing, quoting the legal representatives of both parties being supportive of the Judiciary's new measures in view of the low cost and smooth operation. Given the severe impact brought by COVID-19, the Judiciary has been exploring the use of various technological means in conducting different types of hearings to address the growing backlog of cases caused by the postponement of hearings. The legal sector should also take this opportunity to review the wider use of LawTech and enhance their technological capability. The Government introduced the LawTech Fund, which aims to assist some small and medium size law firms/barristers' chambers in procuring and upgrading information technology systems (such as video-conferencing facilities) and attending LawTech training courses. This will be conducive to the promotion of use of technologies in the provision of legal services. Under the scheme, law firms and chambers with not more than five practicing lawyers are eligible for application. Each firm/chamber will be eligible for a reimbursable amount of up to $50,000. Application for the fund will be jointly administered by the Law Society of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Bar Association. The details will be announced soon and the fund will be opened for application next month. Other measures announced by the Government include: Enhancement of SME Financing Guarantee Scheme, Employment Support Scheme under which the Government will provide wage subsidy to eligible employers to retain employees (details will be available soon), as well as the creation of some time-limited jobs by the Department of Justice. Government measures alone, however, would not be adequate. We must all stand united in solidarity to fight the virus and support Hong Kong. Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng wrote this article and posted it on her blog on April 11.