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Hard to Say “I am Sorry” – Ombudsman Calls for Study of Apology Legislation

22 July 2013

The Ombudsman, Alan Lai, recommends in his Annual Report 2013 that Government departments and public bodies adopt a more open attitude towards making of apologies.  Speaking at a joint press conference with Radio Television Hong Kong held today (22 July) for launching the drama series “Ombudsman Special”, he urges Government to consider legislation to enable public agencies to apologise without fear of incurring extra legal liabilities.


“Our experience with public complaints is that it is not uncommon for complainants to seek an apology from the organisation under complaint for the injustice that they have sustained,” Lai said.  “While apologies are not magic potions that work in every case, such acts often go a long way towards improving the relationship between the Government departments/public bodies concerned and the aggrieved persons.”


Lai stated that his Office has recommended that public officials apologise to individuals who experience unfairness.  Of the 2,285 complaint cases pursued in the reporting year 2012/13, apologies have been given in 347 instances.  In 296 of these cases (85%), the apology was offered only upon or after The Ombudsman’s intervention.


Lai said that even when the complainant has not explicitly demanded it, a sincere and timely apology was often what he/she deserved to get.  “When the apologising party takes responsibility for the action in question and shows commitment towards preventing similar mistakes, saying ‘I am sorry’ often allows the aggrieved person to forgive and move on,” Lai noted.


“There are numerous studies that have identified the power of apology in settling disputes and restoring social cohesion.  Contrary to conventional wisdom, the act of apologising enhances rather than undermines image and esteem.  Instead of being seen as proof of weakness, it demonstrates the moral strength of the individual and the organisation, and their ability to deal with the aftermath.  It rebuilds trust.   However, I often hear that public agencies are inclined or advised not to apologise for fear that their apology will be used against them as admission of guilt and liability in potential litigation,” Lai said. 


“Many common law jurisdictions around the world have introduced legislation to ensure that there are no barriers to saying ‘I am sorry’.  Such legislation is very short and simple which essentially prohibits an apology from being admitted in courts as evidence of liability.”


“I hope that the Administration would initiate research and discussion about legislation in this area with a view to formulating appropriate proposals for Hong Kong.  My Office will continue to make recommendations that public officials apologise as appropriate,” The Ombudsman said.


More background information attached:


(a)    Statistics on cases involving apology 2012/13


(b)   Jurisdictions having some form of apology legislation


(c)    References and studies


(d)   Example of a simple piece of apology legislation


For press enquiries, please contact Ms Kathleen Chan, Senior Manager (External Relations) at 2629 0565 or by email






Office of The Ombudsman


22 November 2013 

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