Making apologies more meaningful and less liable

It’s been quite the week for apologies. Singer Rita Ora hosted a flashy 30th birthday lockdown party which was promptly shut down by the police. And news of politician Joszef Szajer’s sizzling Brussels (s)exploits burst into the mainstream conscious. Their apologies had very different results.

Ora quickly took to Instagram to express what comes across as a fulsome and genuine mea culpa:

Szajer’s apology appeared two days after he had somewhat mysteriously resigned as an MEP and comes across as stilted and reluctant.

“I regret that I broke the lockdown rules, that was irresponsible of me, and I will accept the sanctions that result”.

His reticence almost certainly stems from the salacious nature of his activities, and from hypocrisy of a kind that makes John Major’s basic to basics frolics appear like a walk in the park.

It hardly needs saying that tone counts for much when you are saying sorry and that being seen to apologise sincerely, acknowledging where you’ve gone wrong, and taking responsibility for your actions count for much.

Apologies and the law

Tonal differences aside, Ora and Szajer’s statements bear one thing in common: both state they accept the consequences of their actions.

This was almost certainly prompted by both parties being caught red-handed by the police.

Yet many apologies are never made out of fear of legal liability, and those that are made often avoid any admission of guilt. And as such they can easily end up as tokenistic.

As it happens, John Howell MP also introduced a private members bill to the House of Commons this week that ‘allows an apology to be given that is genuinely and sincerely meant without creating a legal liability that would run into millions of pounds.’

The policy driver, Howell states, is that ‘apologies can often unlock disputes and lead to settlements without recourse to formal legal action’.

This is a commendable initiative. An apology is already a statutory, professional and legal requirement in cases of NHS clinical negligence. And as Howell points out, apology laws already exist in multiple US states, Australia, Canada and elsewhere.

Howells’ recommended solution is less litigation and more arbitration and mediation. Again, the prospect of less media intrusion, lower legal fees and less pressure on our overloaded courts of justice seems eminently sensible.

Appreciate who you’re apologising to

All this is well and good in a commercial context in which big money is at stake. But it doesn’t much help ordinary individuals who are left to the mercy of the crowd and, in Ora and Szajer’s case, the mercy of the police.

To date, Rita Ora has escaped a fine, though the restaurant faces a police investigation. Szajer, on the other hand, has resigned as an MEP and been forced to leave his political party.

Neither apology appears likely to sway the police one way or the other, but it may help sway the general public and others, who are arguably their principal audiences.

While Rita Ora may have made a stupid mistake, her apology has won her at least one new fan. Meantime, Joszef Szajer is licking his wounds.

John Howell’s bill will have its second reading in March 2021. A more constructive and less legalistic environment in which an apology can be made freely and meaningfully is surely in most people’s interests.

UPDATE: It has emerged that Rita Ora has broken lockdown rules a second time, triggering a second apology.

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