Some common law jurisdictions like England, Australia and Singapore have introduced remote hearings to cope with the impact of COVID-19 on the operation of their legal and judicial systems. Since early April, our Judiciary has also introduced the use of video conferencing facilities (“VCF”) for remote hearings for suitable civil cases of the High Court. In the first week of introduction, two cases were heard in this mode. The experience was said to be satisfactory and more cases using VCF have since been listed at the High Court.
We are all very pleased that the public health condition is improving and there was a drop in the number of infection cases in Hong Kong in the last weeks of April. As announced by the Judiciary, all hearings, both civil and criminal proceedings, including trials (except jury trials), will generally resume (with reduced capacity) from 4 May.
Nevertheless, we must not let our guard down. The situation is still fluid, and we must be prepared for all possibilities, including the unfortunate eventuality that COVID-19 returns and hits us with another wave of widespread infection.
The Judiciary is taking a flexible approach. While hearings are to be resumed, the court may continue to invite parties to explore the use of VCF or conduct hearings by telephone where appropriate.
Against this background, legal practitioners must be well prepared to meet the demands on their practice arising from the impact of COVID-19, including having technological tools to conduct remote hearings or transactions in appropriate cases, depending on the nature of their individual practice. The Law Society has highlighted the difficulties of the profession in these challenging times and lobbied for financial relief measures.
On 8 April, the Government announced the proposed establishment of a LAWTECH Fund (“LTF”). On 18 April, the Finance Committee of the Legislative Council approved reserving HK$35 million for the LTF to assist law firms and barristers’ chambers with five or less practising lawyers to procure or upgrade their information technology systems (such as VCF), and arrange relevant lawtech training for their staff.
Those law firms and barristers’ chambers with five or less practising solicitors and barristers respectively as of 8 April 2020, the date when the proposal was publicly announced, are each eligible to apply for funding up to HK$50,000 for the purposes specified under the LTF.
The application period is for two months until 26 June 2020. The Guidance Notes on applications under the LTF and the Application Forms are posted on the websites of the Law Society and the Bar Association. Eligible applicants who are interested in making an application should refer to the Guidance Notes for detailed information.
Briefly by way of introduction, the funding under the LTF covers, on a reimbursement basis, purchases (not renting or leasing) of information technology systems for use by the applicants in their operation and practice as well as the arrangement of relevant lawtech training participated by their staff in Hong Kong (not overseas).
The meaning of “information technology systems” is detailed in the Guidance Notes. It refers to all information technology systems including hardware, servers, computer equipment, software, databases, networks, cloud-based services, and other information technologic tools used in connection with the operation or the practice of the applicant. It is thus not restricted only to VCF for remote hearing purposes.
Further, where other government or public funding is being applied for in respect of a product or training, no application for funding should be submitted for the same item under the LTF. Applicants under the LTF must agree to keep the systems for at least two years from the date of reimbursement.
It is also worth noting that the purchases and training must be committed and be due for payment during the application period, ie between 28 April and 26 June 2020. Purchases and training that were fully paid and settled before the opening of the application period, ie 28 April 2020, are not covered by the LTF.
Eligible practitioners are strongly encouraged to utilise the resources allocated to the legal profession to enhance their competitiveness by upgrading their information technology systems and by providing relevant training to their staff. Enquiries are welcome and please send them to email@example.com.