How to protect children, and sex offenders' rights

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 March, 2009, 12:00am

How to strike a balance between the rights of sex offenders who have paid their debt to society and the protection of the community is a vexed issue. The conflict between residents of the Laguna Verde estate in Hung Hom and a convicted child molester who owns a flat in the estate has revived the debate. Yesterday, after being released from jail, the molester returned to the scene of his crime. Some flat-owners want him banned from the estate's clubhouse, but the estate's management has legal advice that it has no power to do that.

The wider issue is the subject of a project by the Law Reform Commission to devise a scheme for the treatment, rehabilitation, risk assessment and management of sex offenders that would better protect the community without unjustifiably infringing their rights. Meanwhile, as an interim measure, the commission has just completed a public consultation on a very cautious proposal for a register of sex offenders to protect children in vulnerable situations. This followed concerns expressed in the courts and the wider community about one case in particular, in which a private tutor was jailed for molesting students after having already served two and a half years in jail for similar offences.

With few exceptions, such as for registered teachers, child minders and social workers, Hong Kong has no arrangements for employers to check for relevant criminal convictions. The proposed register would widen the net to cover employers in child-related services but it would not be open to the public and the prospective employee would have to initiate the background check.

The commission deliberately issued a mild proposal that could be introduced quickly by administrative means without raising privacy concerns. That reflects the difficulties raised by the stand taken by the Laguna Verde residents. Protecting children against physical and mental abuse is a mark of a civilised society, but we must be sure not to do so at the expense of legal safeguards for our freedom, privacy and property rights. What sets the residents apart is that they already knew their neighbour's background. But their stand, like a register of sex offenders, raises concerns about privacy, the presumption of innocence and rehabilitation. Under the law, a convicted criminal is not obliged to disclose a criminal record after completing a sentence. In the United States and Britain it has been found that disclosure of names can easily lead to discrimination or violence against offenders - or even innocent people mistaken for offenders.

That said, protecting children must be the priority. To help strike a balance if a sex-offenders register is introduced, perhaps access to it should be vetted by the privacy commissioner.