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Sexual Offences

What are sexual offences?

The term "sexual offences" covers a variety of offences including rape, sexual assault, offences against children, and those related to prostitution, extreme pornography and the possession and distribution of indecent images.

The majority of sexual offences are covered by the Sexual Offences Act 2003 which came into force on 1st May 2004. It repealed almost all of the previous statute law relating to sexual offences, including the Sexual Offences Act 1956 and the Indecency with Children Act 1960.

Its purpose was to strengthen and update the law on sexual offences and improve the protection of individuals from offenders. It outlines the law in relation to a wide range of sexual offences including non-consensual offences such as rape and sexual assault, offences against children (under 13 and under 16) and offences against vulnerable persons, including those with a mental illness or disability.

An increasing number of complaints referred by the police to the CPS feature allegations of a non-recent nature. The significant passage of time does not prevent the effective prosecution of sexual offences and charges contrary to the Sexual Offences Act 1956 and Indecency with Children Act 1960 are still used regularly by prosecutors when dealing with criminality which took place before May 2004.

Consent

Section 74 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 defines consent as: "if he agrees by choice, and has the freedom and capacity to make that choice". Prosecutors consider this in two stages:

  • Whether a complainant had the capacity to make a choice about whether or not to take part in the sexual activity at the time in question. For instance, a complainant may lack capacity to consent to sexual activity due to intoxication arising from the consumption of alcohol or drugs.
  • Whether he or she was in a position to make that choice freely, and was not constrained in any way. For example, a complainant who is threatened with violence by an offender immediately before a request for sex is made is unlikely to be exercising a free choice.
  • Assuming that the complainant has both the freedom and capacity to consent, the crucial question is whether the complainant agrees to the activity by choice.

Only four of the offences specified in the 2003 Act require the prosecution to prove the victim did not consent. They are:

  • rape,
  • assault by penetration,
  • sexual assault and
  • causing a person to engage in sexual activity.

When it comes to other offences, such as those committed against children, there is no requirement for the prosecution to prove an absence of consent. In such cases it is only necessary to prove the act itself took place and the age of the alleged victim.

Support for Victims

The Crown Prosecution Service has a team of specialist prosecutors across England and Wales who are trained to deal with cases featuring sexual allegations. These prosecutors work within a set of carefully drafted guidelines.

The CPS is committed to taking all practicable steps to help victims through the often difficult experience of becoming involved in the criminal justice system. There are multi-agency Witness Care Units staffed by police and CPS Witness Care Officers across the UK.

Special measures can also be put in place during court proceedings to make the experience less traumatic for victims and witnesses. Available measures include giving evidence by pre-recorded video, the use of screens, clearing the public gallery and the opportunity to give evidence remotely via a video link.