Modernise Hong Kong law on sexual offences

Hong Kong does not stand out as an unsafe city. But apparently sexual offences are not uncommon. Hardly a day goes by without news of someone landing in court for rape, indecent assault or exposure in public places, and they touch on a broader issue of public concern. Are these offences adequately covered by our law? Is justice being served?

The answer is not always clear because many provisions dealing with sexual offences were made a long time ago, with reference to the prevailing public morality and perceived sexual roles in society. Not surprisingly, some laws may look terribly dated, inconsistent and discriminatory today.

For instance, legally, a man cannot be raped because the law was drafted in such a way that the victim must be a woman. Anal and oral sex without consent also fall outside the definition of rape. Likewise, flashers and under-the-skirt photography are not considered as sexual assault cases and can, therefore, only be sanctioned by charges that do not reflect the true nature of the offences - such as loitering or disorderly conduct in public places. Sometimes offenders are even charged with dishonest use of a computer when the photos involve the use of a computer. These shortcomings clearly fall short of public expectations today.

It is good to see that the Law Reform Commission has taken on the challenge to modernise the law. The 110-page consultation document released earlier touches on a wide range of sensitive issues. Under the proposals, rape is broadened to cover anal and oral sex. The offence also becomes gender-neutral, covering male victims as well as transsexuals. Other recommendations include turning up-skirt snapping into sexual assault and a new offence to deal with more serious assault involving penetration by objects or other body parts. All these warrant thorough public debate.

Belated as it is, the commission has done a great job in addressing the inadequacies in our statute books. It deserves our serious attention and consideration, without which a consensus cannot be found. The package of recommendations, if adopted, will help bring Hong Kong in line with some overseas common law jurisdictions. The government should also play a more active role. Experience has shown that the commission's work has not been given high priority. A delay in the implementation of justice is also justice denied.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Updating law on sexual offences