The number of people seeking divorce in Hong Kong is increasing. Figures released by the Hong Kong government in 2018 showed that the number of divorce decrees granted in 2016 (17,196) almost tripled that in 1991 (6,295). Such trends have been observed in various other countries such as the USA and the UK.
|Year||Divorce decrees granted in Hong Kong|
‘Marriage and Divorce Trends in Hong Kong, 1991 to 2016’, Census and Statistics Department, HKSAR
Moreover, between 2017 to 2019, the number of family cases initiated in the Family Court has consistently surpassed 15,000 every year. As of November 2020, over 10,000 divorce petitions have been filed to the Family Court. While these figures for 2020 may seem low compared to previous years, this is likely due to the closure of the Family Court as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak which meant that for a period of time, divorce petitions could not be filed while the registries were closed.
|Matrimonial Causes cases in District Court|
There are currently 11 Family Court Judges in the District Court in Hong Kong and only a handful of High Court Judges in Hong Kong that deal with family matters. With the number of people petitioning for divorce reaching over 15,000 every year, the courts are being flooded with cases which has caused delays in getting hearings. For instance, for a 2-day hearing to be set down in the Family Court, it is estimated that it would take around 6 months. Likewise, it could take between 4 to 5 months for the Family Court to give judgment. All of this means that some parties are having to wait over a year before their cases are heard and resolved which only serves to prolong the stress divorcing parties have to endure.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Hong Kong Family Courts were closed for 3 months from 29th January 2020 to 3rd May 2020 (except for urgent or essential hearings). After resuming court business for 2 months, the Hong Kong Family Courts closed yet again for 2 days from 20th July 2020 to 21st July 2020 as Hong Kong experienced its 3rd wave of COVID-19 cases. The extended closure of the Hong Kong Family Courts has only served to increase the backlog of cases the Hong Kong Family Courts have to deal with.
Further, where there are significant differences between the parties and the proceedings are hotly contested, ‘satellite’ litigation can arise where the parties make various applications on matters such as further disclosure of financial assets or where should the handover of children be for access. These extra applications have added to the burden on the Hong Kong Family Court system causing further delay. The UK Family Courts have also been experiencing a similar problem and it was reported in the Times that a judge had warned that separated parents were overwhelming courts with demands to micro-manage their lives. In particular, it was reported that requests were made for the UK Family Court to deal with matters such as: “i) At which junction of the M4 should a child be handed over for contact? ii) Which parent should hold the children’s passports (in a case where there was no suggestion that either parent would detain the children outside the jurisdiction)? iii) How should contact be arranged to take place on a Sunday afternoon?”. While orders from the Courts may provide a solution for the parties, many cases could have been avoided if the parties had lawyers to negotiate these minor issues out of the courtroom.
The Hong Kong Family Court has been trying its best to deal with the backlog of cases, which includes dealing with some hearings by way of paper disposal without needing the parties to attend Court and counsel to make oral submissions. Further, the Court has been expanding the use of video-conferencing facilities (“VCF”) in family cases in response to the COVID-19 outbreak and setting up email addresses for judges so that parties can send documents to the Court. However, an area which the Family Court is still lagging behind is the electronic filing (“e-filing”) of Court documents. Other countries such as Singapore have already been using e-filing since 2000. E-filing would be a positive step towards modernizing the Hong Kong Family Court. It would also help to save time and improve the efficiency of the Courts which is badly needed in the present times with the COVID-19 outbreak and the inevitable delays in the Court system.
Divorce can be a very stressful process which can have a negative impact on the parties physical and mental health. The prolonged wait for cases to be heard in the Hong Kong Family Court compounded by the delays arising from COVID have made it even harder for divorcing parties to move on with their lives. A family law solicitor can help guide you through the process. Alternatively, consider engaging in mediation to resolve disagreements out of Court which can save a lot of time and costs.