The last time the District Court’s monetary jurisdiction increased was in 2003. In summary, that increase was to the current level of HK$1 million for general civil claims and HK$3 million for land-related claims. The previous increase was in 2000. Therefore, the confirmation in the Judiciary Administration’s recent Paper (“Review of the Civil Jurisdictional Limits of the District Court and the Small Claims Tribunal”) that these jurisdictional limits are due to increase in 2018, subject to approval by the Legislative Council (“Legco”), will be welcome in many quarters. The proposed increases are (in short) HK$3 million and HK$7 million, respectively.
The Judiciary Administration’s Paper makes for an interesting read. Not only does the Paper contain a summary of projections for the increased workload of the District Court, as a result of the proposals, it also tracks developments in the District Court’s experience and procedures since 2000. Since then, District Court civil practices and procedures have increasingly mirrored those of the High Court, such that they are essentially the same (save for certain specialist areas that are traditionally more the focus of the District Court).
The proposals should also be seen in the context of the change in certain economic indicators in Hong Kong since the last increase in 2003. Not surprisingly, these indicators focus on inflation and property prices and are summarised in the Paper.
An integral part of the proposals is a corresponding increase in the monetary jurisdiction of the Small Claims Tribunal (in the new West Kowloon Law Courts Building) from HK$50,000 to HK$75,000.
The proposals are due to be implemented in the first half of 2018, subject to passage of the necessary resolution in Legco, pursuant to s. 73A (“Amendments of limits of jurisdictions and other amounts”) of the District Court Ordinance (Cap. 336). The Judiciary Administration’s Paper also outlines certain logistical arrangements necessary to handle the District Court’s increased workload, as a result of the changes.
Given the proposed jurisdictional increases and that civil litigation procedures in the District Court are modelled on those of the High Court, attention should turn to the “two-thirds costs recovery” rule in the District Court (pursuant to RDC O. 62, r. 32 – “Scale of costs”). If that rule is regarded as sacrosanct in the District Court (given, for example, access to justice type concerns and the socio-economic background of many of the court’s users, including a higher incidence of litigants in person), then for many stakeholders (including practitioners) more focus should be directed towards the solicitor High Court hourly costs recovery rates. As the President of the Law Society of Hong Kong stated in his letter to members, dated 9 June 2017, with respect to inter partes costs recovery rates:
“There should be a more effective mechanism to recover reasonable costs on the success of a meritorious claim. With the obsolete Solicitors’ Hourly Rates still in place, the recoverability gap of legal costs, ie, the difference between what a successful litigant has actually paid to his lawyer, and what he can recover from the other party under a costs order becomes wider and wider.”
Incredible as it seems, these hourly rates have been frozen for some twenty years and are yet another thing for all stakeholders to reflect on since reunification.