High-profile child sexual abuse and exploitation cases have shown us that more needs to be done to give victims the confidence to disclose the harm they have suffered. It takes immense bravery for sexually exploited children to relive horrific ordeals, and the law must protect and assist them at every stage.
The director of public prosecutions has taken an important first step in making this possible in new guidance to be produced later this year with the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners and the new College of Policing. I hope this will encourage the police and prosecutors to look in more detail at the evidence brought by children, while also importantly concentrating on the behaviour of the perpetrator, not the behaviour of the victim.
The Crown Prosecution Service currently has no policy relating specifically to child sexual exploitation, and it seems right to have one ‘overarching’ approach to the investigation and prosecution of such offences, as recently advocated by the DPP. Everyone would agree that a re-evaluation of the way sexual offences against children are dealt with by the justice system is welcome. The more we can encourage sexually exploited young people to feel comfortable in turning to the law, the more we can be sure that the system is working.
A campaign by Barnardo’s has communicated a simple message to everyone in the legal profession: to remember that victims are children and to set aside our judgements and perceptions. The campaign clearly demonstrated public support for the message that no child can truly agree to being sexually exploited.
This advice comes at an important time, not only for the reasons stated above but because of the Sentencing Council’s review of its guidelines on the sentencing of sexual offences. For decades these guidelines have referred to cases where a child under 13 ‘has been groomed into acquiescence’ and cases where an offender ‘has obtained the agreement’ of a child aged 13, 14 or 15 (section 5).
We have to ask ourselves whether there can ever be any circumstances in which we may see a child as a willing participant in their own abuse. Are our perceptions of the lifestyles and choices of some sexually exploited young people clouding our judgement of them as victims? What if the child is 15 and has had previous sexual relations with someone of his or her own age? Perhaps they look older than they really are. Maybe their behaviour is challenging and their life chaotic or dysfunctional. They may declare love for the person exploiting them sexually. Would these factors affect our ability to give credence to their testimony?
Can we sustain this view that a child can be a willing participant in their sexual exploitation if we really want children to have the confidence to come forward? If we do, we will continue to leave some children believing that they are to blame for the abuse they have suffered, even if the perpetrator is found guilty. How can our having this view give children enough confidence in our legal system to want to enter into it?
The fact that more than 30,000 people backed Barnardo’s view that no child can truly agree to being sexually exploited makes it unthinkable to continue to uphold any notion of children being willing participants in their own abuse. We know that for victims the horror of child sexual exploitation is great and the agony of reliving abuse in a court of law can be terrible. We must not allow our perceptions to affect justice being done. No child should be made to feel somehow responsible for their abuse.
The eventual aim is a legal system better able to safeguard children, which is ultimately a system they can trust. We can shift the focus away from the credibility of victims simply by remembering they are children. In doing so, we can build the confidence of sexually exploited young people to come forward and discuss the abuse they have suffered, giving us the chance to ensure their welfare and giving them the opportunity to improve their lives.
Lord Carlile of Berriew QC