The 'general adjourned period' (GAP) during which the courts in Hong Kong have been closed, save for urgent and essential court business, has been extended to 13 April 2020. The GAP is a consequence of the extraordinary measures adopted in Hong Kong to combat the coronavirus public health emergency.
The High Court recently decided that it can, as part of its case management powers and of its own volition, order that a directions hearing take place by means of a telephone conference without the physical presence in court of the parties or their legal representatives. The court's decision is set against the background of the extraordinary measures adopted in Hong Kong to combat the coronavirus public health emergency.
In a recent case, the Court of First Instance discharged ex parte (without notice) injunctions restraining the second defendant from disposing of or dealing with its assets in Hong Kong. The injunctions were granted in aid only of the plaintiffs' claims against the first defendant which were being pursued in parallel proceedings in mainland China. This was on the basis that the second defendant's assets should be available to satisfy the plaintiffs' eventual judgment against the first defendant.
The High Court has rejected an application for summary judgment of a claim to release money frozen by a bank. This was in the context of an investigation into the alleged use of the account for criminal activity. In its defence, the bank argued that the customer agreement contained an implied term that the bank could act on evidence of suspected fraudulent conduct to suspend operation of the account.
The Court of Final Appeal recently reaffirmed the principles applicable when the courts consider making an enhanced award of costs in favour of the successful party (ie, 'indemnity costs'). The judgment makes it clear that the courts' discretion to award indemnity costs is unrestricted – although, as a basic requirement, such costs should be ordered only when it is appropriate to do so and the receiving party must be able to show that the case has some special or unusual feature.
In re Zadeh v Registrar of Companies, the Court of First Instance held that an application by an overseas company to intervene as a party in existing proceedings in Hong Kong did not expose it to a liability to provide security for costs and that, even if the court did have jurisdiction to order security for costs, it would not have ordered the intervener to do so. Although security for costs against overseas or dubiously solvent plaintiffs is a useful tool in civil litigation, this case demonstrates some of the procedural limits.
In Poon v Poon, the defendant successfully applied to have certain paragraphs excluded from witness statements filed on behalf of the plaintiff on the basis that they referred to without prejudice conversations and meetings. The judgment applies established principles that underpin the protection given to without prejudice communications and demonstrates the court's reluctance to allow a party to 'cherry pick' from parts of wide-ranging discussions that were clearly undertaken on a without prejudice basis.
In Zhang Hong Li & Ors v DBS Bank (Hong Kong) Ltd & Ors, the Court of Final Appeal interpreted a so-called 'anti-Bartlett clause' in a trust deed and held that it excluded the imposition of a "high-level supervisory duty" on the trustee to supervise or review the investment decisions of an investment adviser appointed by the underlying private investment company.
The monetary jurisdiction for civil cases heard by Hong Kong's busy District Court was significantly increased in December 2018. In light of this, the District Court now determines more complex and important civil cases. Therefore, a good case can be made for the abolition of the so-called 'Two-Thirds Rule'. If this is a step too far, a legislative provision should be implemented that provides judges with a wide and flexible discretion to depart from the rule where appropriate in all the circumstances.
In an important and interesting judgment, the High Court declined to admit an overseas barrister unless he appeared with a local barrister. The applicant had applied for ad hoc admission to conduct a case in Hong Kong, on the basis that he would appear with the two solicitor advocates who had charge of the case. Therefore, they sought the removal of what is a usual condition to the grant of ad hoc admission – namely, that the applicant (an English Queen's Counsel) appear with a local barrister.
Mathnasium Center Licensing, LLC v Chang is another recent example of the courts sentencing makers of false statements of truth to a period of imprisonment for contempt of court. In this case, the defendant signed a false statement of truth in a defence filed on behalf of a company which he controlled and which was being sued by the plaintiff. The court found that it was beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant must have known about the falsity of the admission and thus found him to be in contempt of court.
Summary judgment is not available in Hong Kong civil actions which include a claim based on an allegation of fraud. The rule has traditionally been broadly interpreted by the courts, such that any claim raising an allegation of dishonesty against a defendant prevents a plaintiff from applying for summary judgment. The inflexibility of this rule, and the ambit of the meaning of 'dishonesty' in this context, have been the subject of judicial criticism. Now, there are proposals afoot to abolish the so-called 'fraud exception'.
The Court of Appeal has refused permission to appeal an apparently wide-ranging order for the production of documents made in favour of the liquidators in China Medical Technologies Inc v Tsang. Despite the respondent's best efforts, the Court of Appeal decided that the issues stated to arise out of its judgment did not raise questions of great general or public importance. The outcome of the appeal is bolstered by a legislative amendment which amounts to a more coextensive power.
In China Medical Technologies Inc (In Liquidation) v Bank of East Asia Ltd, the court granted an ex parte order extending the validity of a writ, effectively giving the plaintiffs an additional year in which to effect service. The High Court has now discharged that order with the consequences that service was set aside and the action dismissed. This is the latest in a number of similar decisions and suggests that the courts will in future scrutinise extension applications much more closely.
The High Court recently rejected a defendant solicitors' firm's application to strike out a plaintiff's claim on the ground that it was commenced too late. Given the relatively high threshold in Hong Kong for an applicant to succeed with an application to strike out a claim before trial, the court's decision is not surprising. However, the written reasons given in the decision are a useful analysis of the legal principles involved in determining when a cause of action accrues for the tort of negligence.
The High Court has once again been asked to review its jurisdiction to grant permission to issue subpoenas directed at witnesses. In this case, the court granted permission to issue two subpoenas directed at two senior doctors, requiring them to give evidence (supported by specified documents) in aid of a registered dentist's court challenge arising out of disciplinary proceedings against him. The decision reiterates the relatively low threshold for the issue of subpoenas, while also illustrating their possible tactical use.
The High Court recently considered a prospective witness's application to set aside a subpoena directed at him. The subpoena combined directions to the witness to give evidence at trial on behalf of the plaintiff and to produce the originals of certain transaction documents. The court set aside the part of the subpoena directed at giving evidence but not the part directed at producing documents. The decision provides useful guidance as to the general practice for issuing subpoenas.
The issue of liability for costs plays a big part in the settlement of protracted civil litigation in Hong Kong. In particular, where the parties refuse to bear their own costs, which party will pay the other's costs becomes an important consideration. As another recent case demonstrates, without prejudice settlement offers can (among other things) seek to protect a party's position as to costs. Such offers are a common feature of the local litigation landscape for good reason.
Hong Kong has a high incidence of litigants in person, which is largely explained by the cost of civil litigation generally, the absence of class actions, contingent fee arrangements and third-party funding of most civil claims, and the financial eligibility limits for civil legal aid. As recent decisions show, the rates at which litigants in person are awarded costs are far from generous and, to get more, they have to prove that they had to work on the case during their working hours or that they suffered actual pecuniary loss.
In a recent case, the High Court allowed the plaintiff's application for an order that the first defendant and a representative of the second defendant attend a court hearing to be cross-examined on affirmations made by them in the proceedings. The case is a timely reminder of the seriousness of making affidavits or affirmations and of the need to be mindful of the documents to which they refer.