Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Apology Definition:

A statement of regret and responsibility for an act or omission.

An apology is an expression of remorse and an acceptance of responsibility for an act or omission.

Apologies are increasingly encouraged by free and democratic societies as a tool to calm both circumstances and the aftermath of small or trivial incidents (where there are no lasting injuries) and that may otherwise give rise to litigation.

But, as Arizona State University law professor Jeffrie Muphy writes:

"For small wrongs, the mere verbal formulae "I apologize" or "I am sorry" or "Forgive me" or "Excuse me" are generally adequate since their only function is to keep oiled the wheels of civility and good manners.

"What works for small wrongs is likely to be quite unacceptable for wrongs of greater magnitude, however. ... Here we normally expect such things as repentance, remorse (in at least one of its forms), and atonement; and we are interested in apologies only to the degree that we believe that they are sincere external signs of repentance and remorse and reliable external signs of future atonement."

apology - FotoliaPersons involved in an incident from which may arise liability are often stopped from dong the decent thing of extending an apology where their actions have contributed to any injury, or just to show sympathy, for fear that the apology would later be taken as an admission of guilt or preclude contributory factors that might later emerge from the evidence.

In a litiguous society, the first forays into the law in this regard have been tentative. In his 2000 Yale Law Journal article, Lee Taft wrote of apologies as "the healing mysteries of this sacred process" and that:

"In the 1970s a Massachusetts legislator's daughter was killed while riding her bicycle. The driver who struck her never apologized. Her father, a state senator, was angry that the driver had not expressed contrition. He was told that the driver dared not risk apologizing, because it could have constituted an admission in the litigation surrounding the girl's death. Upon his retirement, the senator and his successor presented the legislature with a bill designed to create a safe harbor for would-be apologizors: 'Statements, writings or benevolent gestures expressing sympathy or a general sense of benevolence relating to the pain, suffering or death of a person involved in an accident and made to such person or to the family of such person shall be inadmissible as evidence of an admission of liability in a civil action.'

"There is, of course, a distinction between an apology ... and the protected expressions of sympathy contemplated by the Massachusetts (statute which) protect generic words that express sorrow about another human being's suffering (and not) an authentic apology, understood here as an expression of sorrow coupled with an unequivocal statement of wrongdoing. What is protected are expressions like I'm sorry you are suffering or I'm sorry for your loss. What is not protected are statements like I'm sorry you are suffering because of my behavior. My conduct was wrong. I regret it, and the pain it has inflicted."

An often forgotten characteristic of an apology is that it requires courage.

An apology is often a mitigating factor in defamation, contempt of court and in cases where the defendant may have otherwise been exposed to punitive damages. An aplogy is often relevant in sentencting.

The Canadian province of British Columbia brought in a very short Apology Act in 2006, of which the following three articles of law essentially set out the entirety of the law:

"(An) apology means an expression of sympathy or regret, a statement that one is sorry or any other words or actions indicating contrition or commiseration, whether or not the words or actions admit or imply an admission of fault in connection with the matter to which the words or actions relate....

"An apology made by or on behalf of a person in connection with any matter ... does not constitute an express or implied admission of fault or liability by the person in connection with that matter"and must not be taken into account in any determination of fault or liability in connection with that matter; (and)

"Evidence of an apology made by or on behalf of a person in connection with any matter is not admissible in any court as evidence of the fault or liability of the person in connection with that matter."

In her 2012 article in Appeal, law student Claire Truesdale and defines an apology as follows:

"... an acceptance of responsibility for a specific act ... acknowledgment of the injury caused by that act, and an expression of remorse or regret."


  • Apology Act, SBC 2006, Chapter 19. See also Ontario's Apology Act, 2009, SO 2009, Chapter 3
  • Murphy, Jeffrie, Remorse, Apology, and Mercy, 4 Ohio St. J. Crim. L. 423 (2006-2007)
  • Taft, Lee, Apology Subverted: The Commodification of Apology, 109 YLJ 1135 (1999-2000). The "legislator" was Senator William L. Saltonstall (1927-2009).
  • Truesdale, Claire, Apology Accepted: How the Apology Act Reveals the Law's Deference to the Power of Apologetic Discourse, 17 Appeal 83 (2012). Ms Truesdale article also presented a very helpful collage of definitions of an apology, the essence of which follows: "... the four R's: remorse, responsibility and in some cases, resolution and reparation, with the first two R's being definitional. For psychologist Janet Bavelas, apology is framed slightly differently, as entailing remorse plus responsibility for the hurtful act, which necessarily entails naming oneself as the agent of the act, and a clear description of the act. She draws a distinction between expressions of sympathy and apology. Both involve some expression of being "sorry," but for Bavelas, a true apology necessarily also includes a statement of responsibility. For mediator Carl D. Schneider, the core elements of apology are acknowledgement of the speaker's role in inflicting the injury; some display of emotion such as remorse or regret (what he terms "affect") and opening up the offender to vulnerability, as an apology does not include a defence and thus can be refused by the receiver.... A true apology will expose the offender to some form of vulnerability as a true apology is offered without a defence and thus the offender will, at the very least, face the possibility that the apology offered will be refused."

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