Failure to report abuse vs. children, vulnerable persons may land you in jail

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Amanda Whitfort, chair of the Law Reform Commission's Causing or Allowing the Death of a Child or Vulnerable Adult Sub-committee, speaks on a new proposed offence against bystanders of abuse against children and vulnerable persons on Friday. (SCREENSHOT: Information Services Department/

Those who fail to report abuse against children, the elderly, and persons with disabilities may be held legally liable under a new offence proposed to the Hong Kong government.

In a report published Friday, Hong Kong’s Law Reform Commission recommended “failure to protect a child or vulnerable person where the child’s or vulnerable person’s death or serious harm results from an unlawful act or neglect” as a criminal offence.

The commission said this will deal with issues on “which of you did it” cases, where victims of abuse suffer harm or die while all accused parties are acquitted and freed because no one can prove they committed the offence.

A sub-committee had a public consultation exercise on the issue in 2019, receiving 113 responses. Two years after, the panel made several recommendations in its report.

Among these are the maximum penalties for those who fail in reporting the abuse: offenders may face 15 years in prison if victims of abuse suffer serious harm, and 20 years if a victim dies.

“Our proposed offence targets bystanders—those who fail to take reasonable steps to protect the victim. It also closes the current evidential loophole which creates problems when the prosecution cannot identify the perpetrator of the abuse,” panel chair Amanda Whitfort said.

Whitfort said the law should cover anyone with a duty of care to a victim—including parents, guardians, relatives, domestic workers, social workers, teachers, healthcare workers, police officers who have detained persons in custody, immigration officers, care home workers, among others.

She explained that these people are expected to take “reasonable steps” to protect those in those care when they are aware of a risk of abuse.

But the panel chair said factors to determine the “reasonable steps” include a bystander’s young or old age, disabilities, and whether he or she is subjected to domestic violence or duress—as in the case of domestic workers.

Whitfort also clarified the proposed offence does not target accidents.

“It seeks to encourage intervention before the worst has occurred,” Whitfort said.

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