The onset of COVID-19 has severely affected our economy and the legal sector was not spared. I have discussed with some of the representatives from the industry and we have carefully considered their suggestions with relevant government departments.
On Wednesday, the Government announced another package of measures to support individuals and businesses affected by COVID-19. Two of the measures are relevant to the legal sector: the establishment of LawTech Fund and the COVID-19 Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) Scheme. Today, I would like to share with you the arrangement of the LawTech Fund.
The Government always attaches great importance to LawTech. In her 2018 Policy Address, the Chief Executive supported the development of an online platform by non-government organisations to facilitate the provision of efficient and cost-effective online dispute resolution services in Hong Kong. The Government would allocate funding for the development of this project.
At the Ceremonial Opening of the Legal Year 2019, I emphasized the importance of making use of technology in providing legal services, citing the United Nations General Assembly in 2016 in observing that online dispute resolution (ODR) “can assist the parties in resolving the dispute in a simple, fast, flexible, and secure manner, without the need for physical presence at a meeting or hearing". The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation had responded to the call and embarked on a project to establish an ODR framework with micro, small and medium-sized enterprises as major beneficiaries.
Almost 18 per cent of the annual caseload of the courts at all levels have been affected in the first two months of the General Adjourned Period since January 29. The Judiciary has earlier started using video-conferencing facilities for remote hearings on suitable civil cases at the High Court. The media reported the first hearing conducted through video-conferencing, quoting the legal representatives of both parties being supportive of the Judiciary’s new measures in view of the low cost and smooth operation.
Given the severe impact brought by COVID-19, the Judiciary has been exploring the use of various technological means in conducting different types of hearings to address the growing backlog of cases caused by the postponement of hearings. The legal sector should also take this opportunity to review the wider use of LawTech and enhance their technological capability. The Government introduced the LawTech Fund, which aims to assist some small and medium size law firms/ barristers’ chambers in procuring and upgrading information technology systems (such as video-conferencing facilities) and attending LawTech training courses. This will be conducive to the promotion of use of technologies in the provision of legal services.
Under the scheme, law firms and chambers with not more than five practicing lawyers are eligible for application. Each firm/chamber will be eligible for a reimbursable amount of up to $50,000. Application for the Fund will be jointly administered by the Law Society of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Bar Association. The details will be announced soon and the Fund will be opened for application next month.
Other measures announced by the Government include: Enhancement of SME Financing Guarantee Scheme (http://www.hkmc.com.hk/eng/our_business/sme_financing_guarantee_scheme.html), Employment Support Scheme under which the Government will provide wage subsidy to eligible employers to retain employees (details will be available soon), as well as the creation of some time-limited jobs by the Department of Justice.
Government measures alone, however, would not be adequate. We must all stand united in solidarity to fight the virus and support Hong Kong.
April 11, 2020