It was not long ago (2006) that we reported in InBrief that British Columbia was considering legislation relating to apologies. And, indeed, from our Toronto office, Joseph D’Angelo and Benjamin Bathgate subsequently contributed articles about Ontario’s Apology Act that came into force last year. Manitoba has similar legislation and through rules or amendments to other statutes, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador and Saskatchewan now have similar provisions. In general, they describe the apology as an expression of sympathy or regret, a statement that one is sorry or other words or actions indicating contrition or commiseration.

In their article, D’Angelo and Bathgate explained further:

The objective of such legislation is to encourage early and cost-effective resolution of disputes and/or prevent the commencement of lawsuits where apologies are offered. In the absence of apology legislation, an apology would be considered a key admission in the course of a legal dispute.

There have been a number of studies showing that a sincere, proper apology rendered at the right time has beneficial effects. For example, a study in 1994 showed that, in the case of medical malpractice suits, a significant percentage of patients said they would not have filed suits had they been given an explanation and apology.

Even prior to legislating in the area of “I’m sorry,” the apology was studied and used in the context of court-connected mediation – a process used once a lawsuit had been commenced, but early on, in the hopes the parties would reach a resolution before the matter went to trial for determination by a judge.

But as previously discussed in the context of mediation and likely having applicability in other situations as well, there is no certainty an apology will work. There are numerous dynamics at play which, together with the players and circumstances, do not make forecasts about the effectiveness of apologies highly reliable.

Indeed, if seen as a ploy to soften the other side, it will fail miserably. It may inflame passions, entrench the other side in the belief that he or she must protect against being manipulated or “used.” It should also be noted with considerable care, that even the heartfelt apology, delivered with utmost sincerity and without ulterior motives, may be perceived as insincere by the recipient and may not advance the resolution process. Sincerity may exist objectively, but if it is not perceived as such by the person who is to be or might be affected by it, then it has no value in aiding the resolution process. At the same time, it must be acknowledged that, in some circumstances, the feigned apology will be effective. More precisely, the maker of the apology who feigns the truth and sincerity of it, and who does it well, may be as effective as the one who delivers it honestly. As in so many instances, perception governs.