The benefits of a sex offender register

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 December, 2008, 12:00am

The opposition to the Law Reform Commission proposal for a register of sex offenders is misinformed and misguided. The commission's proposal follows court cases where judges expressed concern about the lack of a register. The most serious involved a young private piano teacher convicted of three offences of indecent assault on young girls while giving them piano lessons at his home.

The first of these was a serious assault on an eight-year-old. Two assaults on a five-year-old only came to light as a result of inquiries into the assault on the eight-year-old. The evidence before the court was that the defendant had a sexual interest in very young girls, in other words that he was a paedophile.

The details of his name and conviction are no secret. Like any other conviction, they can be obtained from court records by anyone who knows the name or some other identifying details of the case.

It is reasonable that a paedophile should not be permitted to work with young children. The traditional argument that a person who has been punished by the court is free to turn over a new leaf and start their life again has to be balanced against the fact that paedophiles are often repeat offenders unable or unwilling to control their impulses, in whose company children are always at risk.

There are already requirements for criminal records checks before employment as a school teacher. The principle has therefore already been accepted that checks should be made into the background of people working with children.

The purpose of the register is to deal with the minority of jobs with children where there is now no means of checking whether a worker may be a paedophile. The main area of concern is the large Hong Kong private tutoring industry.

At present, someone thinking of sending their child to a private tutor has no way of knowing if the tutor is a convicted paedophile. The proposed register would enable a private tutor to obtain a report from the police which would be either a certificate of no criminal conviction or a record of their conviction.

It would be open to a person with a conviction to try to persuade an employer still to employ him, although in cases of paedophile-type offences, it can be assumed that such attempts would fail. The proposed register therefore gives a prospective employer of a private tutor an assurance that the tutor is not a convicted paedophile.

Critics of the scheme have pointed to the intrusion into civil liberties of the more extensive schemes in place in the US and Britain. The Hong Kong proposal does not follow those schemes. In particular our committee unanimously agreed that it was unacceptable to allow the present English system where people who have been acquitted of paedophilia-type offences still to have their details kept on the register.

The scheme provides modest and limited protection for private tuition pupils akin to that already provided for school children. It should be introduced without delay.

Paul Harris is a senior counsel and was the founding chairman of Human Rights Monitor