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Court technology remains a work in progress

Hong Kong, 10 June 2020: Finding silver linings amid the coronavirus pandemic has been difficult, to put it mildly, with almost every aspect of our daily lives disrupted. But one positive development – for the legal profession, at least – came in March with our Judiciary’s recognition that we needed advanced technological solutions in our court system. This would not only allow cases to be heard remotely, it would bring Hong Kong into line with many other jurisdictions where video conferencing has been the norm for years.

It was a welcome development and, towards the end of April, while the courts were still generally closed, we at Boase Cohen & Collins were pleased to participate in one of the first remote hearings. The key players were at three locations, namely the High Court and the respective counsel’s chambers, and the all-day session went smoothly. Afterwards, there was general agreement within our team that it had been a success.

Alas, our second experience was more problematic. In a hearing set for last week, our client was overseas and wished to watch the proceedings and give evidence, but we ran into a succession of technical problems involving WiFi, firewalls, routers and the like. It took IT staff from both the Judiciary and Boase Cohen & Collins considerable time and effort to resolve the issues and enable everything to run smoothly.

In contrast, our firm was recently involved in a case management hearing at the High Court in London regarding a civil matter. There were almost 40 participants in various parts of the world logging on via Skype for Business, the preferred platform of the English courts, and it proceeded without a hitch.

Our courts have been reopened – with social distancing measures in place – since early May and have a huge backlog of cases to process. In short, they are swamped with work. Perhaps this is why the momentum to implement more video technology and ensure it is user-friendly appears to have stagnated. It is regrettable and I’m sure many of my colleagues in the legal profession would agree we need renewed commitment to getting up to speed.

If Covid-19 has caused headaches for our Judiciary, these pale compared with the myriad problems facing Cathay Pacific. As a consequence, our government is leading a massive HK$39 billion (US$5 billion) bailout of the struggling airline, seeing it as a necessary step to protect Hong Kong’s status as a global aviation hub. Under a recapitalisation plan unveiled yesterday, the government will provide a lifeline of HK$27.3 billion (US$3.5 billion), giving it a 6% stake.

While this may be laudable, it is also a fact that an airline cannot be sustained without air travel. Yet we have compulsory quarantine for travellers from mainland China, Macau and Taiwan and for Hong Kong residents arriving from anywhere else. There continues to be an indefinite ban on non-residents flying in from abroad. While I stated last week that these restrictions are understandable, there does need to be an exit plan. After using public funds to help Hong Kong’s national carrier, the onus is on our government to announce one.

I should at least finish with some good news. Hong Kong has now gone five days without any locally transmitted cases of the coronavirus. The small cluster of cases discovered recently at a housing estate in Sha Tin appears, at this stage, to have been contained, with over 100 people evacuated to government-run quarantine camps and more than 1,300 residents tested for the virus. It means our city’s Covid-19 tally remains at 1,107 cases with four related deaths. Hong Kong is winning the coronavirus fight, but at huge economic cost. We need to move forward, sooner rather than later.

Stay safe and well, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins