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HK to Introduce IT Strategy Plan in 2020

Hong Kong IT Strategy Plan

Hong Kong’s judiciary is on its way to becoming paperless as a bill permitting the use of digital documents and signatures in court is expected to be introduced in the legislature in January 2020.

The long-awaited Court Proceedings (Electronic Technology) Bill was gazetted on 27 December 2019, seven years after the judiciary conducted the first study on the issue in 2012.

The move will enable Hong Kong to draw level with its regional competitor, Singapore, where courts have permitted electronic filing since 2000.

Currently, Hong Kong courts require litigants and lawyers to submit printed copies of judicial applications and case materials – a practice which litigation professionals are accustomed to.

This means that Hong Kong courts have fallen behind other jurisdictions in accepting electronic legal papers.

The judiciary is 57 months late on implementing phase one of the scheme.

However, the bill will allow litigants and legal professionals to send and receive court filings or otherwise communicate with the court via electronic means.

Digital signatures would generally be allowed in court-related papers, while printouts of the digital documents issued by the “e-courts” would bear the same legal footing as their originals. Electronic payments would also be accepted.

One barrister welcomed the development as the use of electronic copies could conveniently allow immediate communication and save storage space. However, he also noted that the traditional means of exchanging documents remained relevant for users who may not be familiar with the technology and in handling sensitive confidential papers.

Moreover, hackers might be able to intercept the information. But, of course, the risk of data theft is present across all systems so it really depends on the security measures put in place, he added.

The government stated that the scheme titled the Information Technology Strategy Plan aimed to make court proceedings more efficient and reduce paper use.

It added the use of electronic technologies in court would be on a voluntary basis, while judges and lawyers could still transact business by conventional means.

The first phase would involve criminal and civil proceedings of the District Court, as well as relatively simple cases involving summonses in Magistrates’ Courts. The electronic system would be extended to the remaining courts and tribunals in the second phase.

The bill’s first reading was expected in the Legislative Council on 8 January 2020.

But the first phase of the transition, for which Legco’s Finance 8 Committee approved funding of HK$682.4 million (US$87.5 million) in May 2013, could only be completed by March 2021, according to a report by the Audit Commission in October 2019.

The report revealed the judiciary was 57 months late in implementing the first phase – which was originally expected to be ready by June 2016 – because of a manpower shortage and delays in procuring IT services and facilities.

The second-phase transition was initially expected to end this month, but a revised timetable saw the target completion date pushed back by three years to September 2022.

Hong Kong has fallen behind in accepting electronic legal papers, which help reduce printing costs and speed up proceedings. Britain started to roll out electronic filing in some commercial tribunals in 2015. The US federal court has also introduced an electronic filing system, and the Supreme Court has made electronic filing mandatory since 2017 to save costs.

While it is hoped that the new bill will enable greater efficiency and expediency in matters of the law, the next two years will afford the HKSAR Government the opportunity to prove its commitment to LawTech in the city.

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