Hong Kong Custodial Sentences for False Statements of Truth

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Sept. 6 – The courts in Hong Kong have imprisoned two defendants for periods of five and six months for making false statements of truth in cases brought against them. This is the first time custodial sentences have been handed down for the offense, and indicates that Hong Kong courts are getting tougher on accuracy of statements. The court’s view was that the false statements amounted to contempt of court and warranted imprisonment.

Persons who make false statements of truth in court documents, such as witness statements, expert reports or pleadings, or those who deliberately make them to their solicitors, or cause others to make them, can now expect custodial sentences in addition to receiving fines and an order of legal costs against them. Proceedings in such can be made by a single judge within a civil court and not necessarily in a criminal court, however the criminal standard of proof is required, being “beyond reasonable doubt.”

Statements of truth were introduced in Hong Kong as recently as 2009, and are a simple wording attached to civil litigation proceedings, typically being “I believe the facts stated in this statement are true.” The court’s judgment was made in a case re Kinform Limited DCMP 947 of 2011 (Kinform), in which the court found that: “Like the commission of the offense of perjury, the giving of a false statement verified by a statement of truth would undermine the whole process of the court system of justice and the court will not tolerate such an act. A clear message has been sent to all litigants that they must not lie when they put forward their case in the form of pleadings or witness statements.”

This case also illustrates the options now open for prosecution of individuals who are found to have made libelous statements online, via emails or through the web, and who may then seek either to cover up such deceit by making false statements of truth. While the internet may be used inappropriately to send emails via proxy servers, propagate libel, and cover up of libelous statements through using aliases, these can now be uncovered and the individuals identified. The problem with proceeding with such cases, especially libel, is the statement of proof. Now that Hong Kong courts have shown they are prepared to get tough on witness statements, those that have placed libelous material online in the past would be well-advised to remove such content. Hiding behind false statements of truth is no longer tolerated and can lead to serious repercussions. Actions are expected to rise in such cases that could lead to imprisonment for defendants of cases heard in Hong Kong, especially as imprisonment can be determined at lower, civil court level.