Hong Kong’s child abuse reporting law must cast a wide net and come with stiffer penalties
- As the government has now acknowledged the principle of mandatory reporting, a minimalist approach has nothing to commend it
- The public needs to know how seriously an offence is viewed by the legislature, not least because this can affect compliance
Last year, former chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor announced that “we are formulating a legislative proposal to provide for a mandatory reporting mechanism on child abuse cases”, and this was widely welcomed. If people aware that children are being mistreated are required to report it, it can prevent abusive situations from worsening.
The case for reform has also been buttressed by the Social Welfare Department’s Child Protection Registry, which disclosed 1,367 newly reported child abuse cases last year, up 45.4 per cent over the 2020 figure of 940 cases. But with no statutory requirement to report child abuse, official figures tell only part of the story, and the plight of most victims never comes to light.
In common law, there is no legal obligation to report a crime, let alone try to stop it. Although there may be a moral duty to act, it is legally unenforceable, and, for example, a witness to a wounding or a rape can choose to do nothing. Because of this, many people take the view that child abuse is “none of my business”, and the consequences have sometimes been dire.
As the government has now acknowledged the principle of mandatory reporting, a minimalist approach has nothing to commend it. The more widely the net is cast, the greater the protections afforded to the most vulnerable. Although nobody wants a society of snitches, there can be no cause for complaint if people are expected to act when genuine concerns exist for the safety of a child, and for which useful precedents exist.
Although the government’s proposals envisage three discrete categories of seriousness, each with separate reporting requirements, there must be no loopholes. Even very minor cases of suspected ill-treatment may mask a far graver reality, and apparently trivial instances of abuse can rapidly escalate into something far more sinister.
If, moreover, there is not the timely reporting of suspicious situations by professionals and others encountering children, the proposed protections will be deficient. If there are reasonable grounds to suspect that a child is being physically, sexually or emotionally abused, or is being otherwise neglected, and is, or may be, in need of protection, their duty to act should be set in stone.
Apart from overt injuries, the telltale signs that trigger reporting might include ongoing distress, unnatural reticence, irrational conduct or loss of appetite. Any of these conditions could result from abuse, and, if people are in doubt, the safest course is to alert the authorities so they can evaluate things. If they make their reports in good faith, their identity should not be disclosed, and they also need to be protected from civil, criminal or administrative consequences if their concerns prove unfounded.
If, moreover, somebody fails to make a report in circumstances where this is required, the proposals envisage a maximum sentence of three months’ imprisonment and a fine of HK$50,000 (US$6,370), which is clearly on the low side. Only very minor offences, such as littering or urinating in public, attract penalties of this sort, and more realistic sentences, of at least six months’ imprisonment, as in the Australian Capital Territory, are necessary to give the provision teeth. The public needs to know how seriously an offence is viewed by the legislature, not least because this can affect compliance.
Secretary for Welfare and Labour Chris Sun Yuk-han plans to bring a bill to the Legislative Council next year, and it will be in the public interest if legislators ensure this long-overdue protection receives the fairest possible wind.
Grenville Cross SC is honorary consultant to the Child Protection Institute of Against Child Abuse