Message from Chair of the Human Research Ethics Committee, 22 February 2023         

I write to inform you of the additions to the existing operational guidelines and the revised application form for ethics approval. 

          In view of the possible legal/high risk issues that might be imposed on our researchers and participants for research projects involving the use of research participants who are potentially in breach of the law, the University Research Committee (URC) has approved the proposal of the Human Research Ethics Committee (HREC) for supplementing the existing HREC operational guidelines with clauses concerning legal, ethical, and safety compliance to accommodate such research projects in the future.  In this connection, the application form for ethics approval has also been revised. 

           The approved additions are as follows:

“ IX. Legal, Ethical and Safety Compliance

44. It is the responsibility of the PI to make sure that the research proposal submitted to the Human Research Ethics Application System is carefully reviewed for its compliance with applicable laws (including those of Hong Kong and/or those of other relevant jurisdictions), ethical standards, and health and safety guidelines.  Any illegal, unethical or unsafe action/activity must be avoided throughout the research process.

45. Researchers should, in particular, note the following principles when conducting research that may involve research participants who are/were engaged in activities in breach of (or potentially in breach of) the applicable laws (including those of Hong Kong and/or those of other relevant jurisdictions):
a) serious and due consideration must be given to whether or not such involvement is well justified taking into account such factors as academic merit, alternative research methods and sources, potential risks, mitigation measures and interests of stakeholders;

b) there must not be any act, conduct or activity that may bring the University into disrepute;

c) there must not be aiding, abetting, counselling or incitement in respect of any offence or potential offence;

d) legal duties to report or disclose as required under the applicable laws must be discharged (e.g. legal provisions in respect of offences of drug trafficking, money laundering, terrorism, national security, etc.);

e) there must not be obstruction to criminal or other investigations by the competent authorities or the commission of acts tending to pervert the course of justice;

f) requests for the disclosure of information/documents (including confidential information/documents) as required under the compulsion of applicable laws must be complied with; and

g) in the informed consent form, in addition to being provided with general information, prospective research participants must be informed of the risks and circumstances in which confidentiality may not be maintained (e.g., compulsion by relevant legal authorities to hand over research materials or answer questions) and what additional safeguards the PI will therefore undertake to protect the integrity of the research and the identity of the research participants, subject to compliance with the applicable laws. 

46. In the event that an ethics application involves research participant(s) under investigation by a competent authority or participant(s) subject to legal proceedings in court or otherwise (criminal, civil or disciplinary), the University will normally suspend the processing of the ethics application until the completion of the relevant investigation or legal proceedings.”  

Please notice that the above-mentioned additions are not to be regarded as specific legal advice on any particular case, but should serve as general reminders and points to note.  

          Question 10 “Risk Assessment” and pages 3, 5 and 6 of Part E – Declaration of the application form for ethics approval have also been revised accordingly.  These changes are also reflected in the online Human Research Ethics Application System (HREAS).

          Taught postgraduate and undergraduate students can download the updated operational guidelines (document 223/223) and revised application form for ethics approval (document 224/223) at the HREC website.  

           If you have any enquiry, please feel free to contact Research Services at

Yours sincerely,

Professor Li-fang Zhang
Human Research Ethics Committee

February 22, 2023

cc: Chairman, University Research Committee
      Deputy Chairman, Human Research Ethics Committee
      Deans of Faculties
      Faculty Secretaries
      Head, Research Services