Child abuse can take various forms and is not always easy to identify. Although physical abuse that causes injury is often prosecuted, those who psychologically abuse or molest a child can often get away with it. When, therefore, culprits are convicted, they should face condign punishment, and this was why the maximum penalty for child cruelty was raised — for offenses tried on indictment — from two to 10 years’ imprisonment in 1995.
In 2019, when the Law Reform Commission (LRC) issued its consultation paper on the proposed offense of causing or allowing the death or serious harm of a child or vulnerable adult, it emphasized that its proposal did not affect the child cruelty offense, which originated in the UK in 1861 and has been modified from time to time.
The LRC, however, recommended that the government should undertake a review of the maximum penalty of 10 years’ imprisonment for child cruelty, “with a view to increasing it as appropriate”.
The child cruelty offense is housed in the Offences against the Person Ordinance (Cap.212), and criminalizes the mistreatment of a child or young person by those having charge of it. It arises if somebody “willfully assaults, ill-treats, neglects, abandons or exposes such child or young person” (Sect.27). Every child has the right to be protected from abuse, and, for example, those in care homes who abused their wards in 2021 have been held to account.
Despite these prosecutions, child abuse remains prevalent, although much of it never comes to light, including, for example, sexual abuse in cyberspace. Children sometimes find themselves coerced into sex after getting to know someone through social media or even online gaming. In the first nine months of 2021, there was a 60 percent rise in reports of sexual abuse over the previous year, from 263 to 427, with about a third occurring in public. Twenty-two of the victims were aged 5 or under, and all but one were girls.
In October, the commissioner of police, Raymond Siu Chak-yee, pointed out that although the city had recorded 795 child abuse cases between January and August 2022, similar to the figure for 2021, the severity of the cases had grown, which, he said, was both saddening and troubling. The community has recently been shaken by some horrific cases of child cruelty, although the proposed law on the mandatory reporting of child abuse will hopefully help to expose the problem at an early stage.
In 2018, the Court of First Instance was confronted with what it called “a grotesquely shocking case of child abuse” (HCCC 76/2017). The defendant, Mandy Wong Wing-man, was convicted of willfully neglecting her 7-year-old daughter, who, in consequence, said Justice Kevin Zervos, “now lives in a vegetative state for the rest of her limited life”. Having sentenced her to nine years and six months’ imprisonment, the judge observed that, “as revealed by the circumstances of this case, and other cases that have been mentioned, the maximum sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment needs to be reviewed”. This was because “this punishment does not fit the serious levels of this crime”.
His call, however, went unheeded, as the Court of Appeal noted in its judgment of Feb 17, 2023, which concerned one of the worst imaginable instances of child abuse (CACC 89/2021). It was, as the acting chief judge of the High Court, Andrew Macrae, explained, a “tragic case”, in which a 7- or 8-year-old boy and a 5-year-old girl were subjected to “extreme and callous cruelty and neglect by those supposed to be caring for them”, resulting in the girl’s death.
The judge said that any parent who inflicted this type of cruelty upon children who “were powerless to defend themselves” and whom the parent was “supposed to cherish and regret” deserved “no mercy whatsoever”. Whereas the two defendants, respectively the father and stepmother of the victims, were sentenced to life imprisonment after trial for the girl’s murder, they were each also sentenced, upon their guilty pleas, to nine years and six months’ imprisonment for two separate offenses of child cruelty, caused by willful assault, ill-treatment and neglect, with all sentences to be served concurrently.
Before concluding his judgment, Macrae recalled Zervos’ suggestion of five years previously, and reiterated that “the maximum sentence for this offense comes nowhere near providing for the punishment of those who would abuse children in this way”. He said the case “demonstrates yet again the need for a substantial increase in the maximum sentences for this offense”.
Although it cannot be assumed that higher sentences are always the answer for every type of crime, they do invariably have some deterrent effect. If maximum penalties are low, they can deprive victims, at least in part, of the protections they need. If, as both the police and the judiciary have observed, serious child abuse cases are occurring, society should act. The courts must be able to respond appropriately whenever they encounter worst-case scenarios, and the sooner an enhanced penalty is enacted for child cruelty, the safer the city’s youngsters will be.
The author, a senior counsel, is the honorary consultant to the Child Protection Institute of Against Child Abuse, and was previously the director of public prosecutions of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.