Dominic Wai participates in the IR Global Disputes Virtual Series – Technology & Disputes: The impact of new technology on litigation and dispute resolution

Dominic WaiPartner, ONC Lawyers

Foreward by Andrew Chilvers

For the legal sector, COVID-19 has been a huge catalyst for change globally. Overnight, almost all legal advisors decamped en masse from their expensive mid-town and city offices to their homes to work. Personal meetings suddenly disappeared to be replaced by virtual meetings on Zoom or Microsoft Teams.

As the UK went into Lockdown only 2% of lawyers admitted they worked from home, according to a recent survey by RollOnFriday. com. Those attitudes have now changed radically as countries and territories around the world have gone into Lockdown and the vast majority of people have become home workers. Now almost 75% of legal advisors admit they would happily work from home three days a week and – amazingly – only 7% said they wanted to return to the office full time.

Above all, working remotely may have broken the longstanding links between office and work. Some 44% of respondents said in the long term they only wanted to return to the office for two days a week at the most. Many lawyers also believe working from home is good for their work /life balance. Elsewhere, many have said working remotely significantly improves efficiency, with less commuting time and disturbances around the office. In this virtual series legal members of IR Global gave a fascinating insight into this new world of working and how each jurisdiction has been handling their operations during Lockdown and the post-COVID-19 period.

What steps are you taking to adapt your services to the new remote working environment?

A lot of international law firms have been adopting work-fromhome practices for a while, although they’ve largely been office based for most people. But with Lockdown and the recent spike in COVID-19, a lot of them have been going back to working from home. For us, we’ve been trying to go back to the office and have split into two teams – so one team will be in office and the other team will work from home. And because of that we have had to adopt a remote access mode of working and accessing our files and data.

In terms of liaising with clients, we try to use virtual meetings more often than before, although some clients might still come into the office. The virtual meetings on, say, Zoom also apply for our own in-house team for things such as continuing professional development. So one colleague might be in the conference room and everyone else will be in their own rooms or at home using Zoom to watch the presentation.

In terms of Hong Kong courts, we are gradually having hearings by way of audio conferencing and also video conferencing facilities. The courts are slowly adapting to the situation and using new technology. For criminal matters, however, they still require people to go to court in person.

Virtual commissioning – are we there yet?

In Hong Kong, we can use electronic signatures on documents, but for Wills, Trusts, Power of Attorney, Mortgages, Affidavits, Statutory Declarations you can’t do it by electronic signature. Consequently, there’s a little bit of catching up for that; because for a time like this, for example, if you have a property transaction, you need someone to come to sign that mortgage or deed or an assignment document.

You need to have that person in the office to sign the document. But then, of course, these days, because of Lockdown and cross-border restrictions, it’s very difficult for the client to come in. This is particularly true for clients in mainland China if, for instance, they have bought a property in Hong Kong and they need to come to Hong Kong to sign.

There are these types of problems occurring and I think we should change the law to allow for electronic signatures, but we haven’t got to that yet. How are we going to solve this problem? We have to resort to the old ways of maybe finding a law firm that has someone who is qualified in Hong Kong, but who is based on the mainland. They can be the person who can witness the signature and ask the client to go to that particular law firm and sign the documents there. And that’s the same for notarization. As a result, there’s a lot of catching up to do to try to devise or amend the law to allow people to do electronic signatures – after all, this pandemic is going to last for a long time.

With much of this we just have to improvise at the moment and try to work out the best way to try to resolve various situations. But I’m just saying that the law needs to catch up with all of these situations.

What is happening regarding online dispute resolution in your jurisdiction?

As I mentioned, in Hong Kong the courts on civil matters are trying to adopt video conferencing facilities. And I think they need to do that because of the backlog of cases. In one recent case, in terms of the hearing date for an 11-day trial, the pretrial review is November next year and the actual hearing is 2022. That’s just one case, so you can imagine a lot of backlog of cases.

By doing it remotely or via videoconferencing facilities, that might solve the issue. In terms of online dispute resolution, before the pandemic in Hong Kong the Department of Justice had been developing a platform for that. I think that’s mainly for the One Belt, One Road initiative. The government will be rolling this platform out maybe sometime this year, which might also help other parties if they choose to do so, if they want an earlier resolution. Say, for example, they know that they have a long time to wait for their trial. Maybe they can decide to go for mediation and then maybe even do it online, which is more cost effective and quicker.

All these types of platform tools are being developed and should be available for parties to choose but if they want to go for the usual way of going to the courts, then they just have to queue up and wait their turn.

Regarding the rise of technology, how much do you understand about blockchain for your clients?

I know about blockchain but I’m not sure I can profess to be someone who can tell you what it is. In some circumstances it can be used to confirm certain things, say, a smart contract. I do think that with the proper kind of setup and the product, blockchain has a use and we could save a lot of time trying to deal with bogus inquiries by using a blockchain.