Activists for women's rights are up in arms over a Law Reform Commission report that recommends allowing suspended sentences to be imposed for indecent assault.
The offence is currently not punishable by a suspended sentence, so judges impose either an immediate custodial sentence or a milder penalty, such as a fine.
An advocate of women's rights said the commission's proposal could send the wrong message to society that indecent assault was a petty offence.
"Suspended sentences are like letting the offenders walk free," said Linda Wong Sau-yung, executive director of the Association Concerning Sexual Violence Against Women.
"All sexual offences should be dealt with seriously."
The commission also recommends allowing suspended sentences for other crimes, including manslaughter, attempted indecent assault, affray and possession of an offensive weapon in a public place - all of which require judges to impose immediate custodial sentences or milder penalties such as fines.
"The commission trusts that there is no cause to worry that this will increase the risk of harm to the community, or send the wrong message to society," commission secretary Stephen Wong Kai-yi said.
"It has full confidence in the judges and magistrates in Hong Kong, who would appropriately exercise their sentencing discretion without any restrictions, considering the gravity of the offence and the circumstances of the offender."
Of the jurisdictions studied that provided for suspended sentences, none maintained exceptions as wide and extensive as those in Hong Kong, he said.
Barrister Albert Luk Wai-hung said he was satisfied that the proposal was meant only to allow judges more choice in weighing sentencing.
Some of the offences could be very minor, lawyer Daniel Wong Kwok-tung noted. "It depends on circumstances, and the judge should be allowed more discretion."
Josephine Chan Shu-ying, spokeswoman for the women's affairs concern group of the Democratic Party, disagreed. "It is very puzzling that the commission would call for changes to a law when there are no strong public views against it."
When the commission published a consultation paper last June, the Bar Association and the Law Society backed the proposal.