1.  Q: What should I do if I am involved in disputes relating to employment contracts?

A: If you are involved in a dispute about employment contracts, including wages payment and other conditions of employment, then you may go to the Labour Relations Division of the Labour Department to seek a preliminary consultation or voluntary conciliation service. If you wish to initiate legal action or defend a claim that has been made, then your case will be heard by the Labour Tribunal. Claims for work-related injuries must be taken to the District Court.

2.  Q: Can I resolve the dispute without suing?

A: Court action should generally be your last resort. You should first consider other ways to settle your dispute. For example, if a person owes you money, you may first write him a demand letter. In the demand letter, you should state how much money he owes you and what it is for, and give him a warning that if he does not repay you by the date you mention, you will take legal action against him. Sometimes this warning, in particular if given by your lawyer on your behalf, will be effective in getting the debtor to repay you and so you do not have to go to court to start a civil action. If your debtor is willing to repay but is not able to make a lump sum payment of all the money he owes, you may negotiate with him for settlement by installments. You must keep a copy of the demand letter and any reply record from the debtor. In case you do eventually have to go to court, you may need to use them as evidence.

3.  Q: How to start a civil action?

A: Before starting a civil action, you should first consider the nature of your claim and the amount involved. You can then work out the appropriate court in which to start your action. If the amount involved does not exceed $50,000, the case will be heard by the Small Claims Tribunal. If the amount of the claim is more than $50,000 but less than $1 million, it will be heard by the District Court. If the plaintiff claims for an amount above $1 million, the case will be heard by the Court of First Instance of the High Court.

In civil proceedings, the party who sues is called the “plaintiff” or the “claimant” and the party being sued is called “the defendant” or “the respondent”. Before submitting any documents to the court to start a lawsuit, it is advisable for the plaintiff to issue a letter (formally called the “demand letter”) to the defendant asking for rectification, compensation or repayment (as the case may be) within a certain period of time (usually ranges from 7 to 14 days). If a demand letter is issued, the plaintiff must keep a copy of the demand letter, as it will be one piece of evidence that the plaintiff will have to submit to the court later. If the defendant fails to comply with the requirements stipulated in the demand letter, or does not give any reply, the plaintiff may then go to the court to start a lawsuit.

To start a lawsuit, the plaintiff has to apply for the court to issue a document called a writ of summons or an originating summons, which then has to be served on (i.e. delivered to) the defendant. These two modes are the most common modes for commencing an action in the District Court or the Court of First Instance of the High Court.

4.  Q: If I want to start a civil action, what risks will I face?

A: Before you start a civil action, you should bear in mind that the court may find that you are unable to prove your case and consequently you will lose your case. If you lose your case, you would not be able to recover the sum which you have claimed nor would you be able to recover any legal costs or expenses that you have incurred in bringing your claim to court. In addition, you will have to bear your opponent’s costs for defending against your claim. This would include legal costs if your opponent is legally represented. Further, if your opponent has made a counterclaim against you and you lose your case, you will also have to pay any compensation sought by your opponent that has been awarded to your opponent by the court. In order to assess the strength of your case and the risks involved in starting a civil action, it is recommended that you seek legal advice.

5.  Q: Is there a deadline for civil litigation?

A: Under the Limitation Ordinance (Cap. 347), there is a time limit for starting a civil action against another. For example, a civil action for breach of commercial contract must be instituted within 6 years from the date on which the breach of contract happened. For personal injury claim, the time limit for starting a civil action is within 3 years from the date of the accident/the date when the plaintiff was injured, or the date of the plaintiff’s knowledge (i.e. knowing that the injury was significant and attributable to the defendant), whichever is later.