Bill proposes wide ranging reforms of the law, including stronger sanctions, aimed at protecting children from sexual exploitation; child pornography and online grooming
· New criminal offences to protect children against grooming, including online
· New & strengthened offences to tackle child pornography
· New prohibition against sex offenders working with children and vulnerable persons
· Strengthening the post-release supervision and monitoring of sex offenders
· Risk assessment of sex offender and disclosure of information regarding offenders to be placed on a statutory footing
· Increased protection for vulnerable persons
· Introduction of new Harassment Order
· New provisions to be introduced regarding evidence by victims, particularity children
· Gender anomaly in incest law to be addressed
· Age of consent to sexual activity to remain at 17 years of age - Two year proximity clause to be introduced
· Criminalisation of the purchase of sexual services
Frances Fitzgerald, TD, Minister for Justice and Equality has today published the Heads and General Scheme of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill 2014.
Minister Fitzgerald stated: “This important new Bill provides for wide ranging reform of our laws, including stronger sanctions, aimed at protecting children from sexual exploitation; child pornography and online grooming.”
“The Bill will provides for a more effective response to sexual offending within our criminal justice system”
The Bill, when enacted, will implement the EU Directive on ‘Combating the sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of children and child pornography’ as well as paving the way for Ireland to ratify the Council of Europe ‘Convention on the protection of children against sexual exploitation and abuse’. The Heads of the Bill also seek to implement the recommendations of two Oireachtas Committees on Child Protection and the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Equality and Defence.
New criminal offences to protect children against grooming, including online
Heads 3 - 8 of the Bill propose a number of new criminal offences to tackle the sexual exploitation of children, including grooming. The new offences relate to:
· Soliciting & paying for purpose of sexually exploiting a child;
· Invitation to sexual touching;
· Sexual activity in presence of a child;
· Causing a child to watch sexual activity;
· Use of ICT (e.g. internet and mobile phones) to facilitate sexual exploitation of a child.
It is also proposed to strengthen the existing offence of meeting a child for the purpose of sexual exploitation.
Minister Fitzgerald stated: “These new offences will greatly strengthen Ireland’s laws to protect children from sexual exploitation. The new offences also reflect the reality that predatory sexual activity to target children can now take place online, for example via social media.”
The sanctions for these new offences include both fines and prison sentences ranging in most cases from to 10 to 14 years.
The Minister added: “These heavy sanctions reflect the seriousness of these crimes and reaffirm our societal determination to punish those who exploit innocent children.”
New & strengthened offences to tackle child pornography
Heads 13 – 17 of the Bill propose:
· a new criminal offence in relation to the recruitment or arranging for a child to participate in a pornographic performance.
· a specific new criminal offence in relation to the organisation of child prostitution or the production of child pornography; and
· strengthen criminal offences relating to the distribution and possession of child pornography.
The Minister stated: “Child pornography is a global problem. I have attended a number of recent international conferences where the need for strong laws to tackle child pornography was repeatedly highlighted. This new bill will do just that and will ensure that there are tough offences in our laws for those who seek to exploit children through either producing, distributing or even viewing child pornography.”
New prohibition against sex offenders working with children and vulnerable persons
Head 35 of the Bill provides for a Judge at sentencing to include a period of prohibition preventing sex offenders from working with children and vulnerable persons.
Strengthening the post-release supervision and monitoring of sex offenders
Minister Fitzgerald welcomed Part 3 of the General Scheme which outlines a number of important amendments aimed at strengthening the post-release supervision and monitoring of sex offenders. These amendments to the Sex Offenders Act 2001 follow a review of the management of sex offenders under that Act
The changes include:
· Reduction in period in which sex offenders must make notifications to Gardaí from 7 days to 3 days;
· A new requirement on sex offenders to provide fingerprints, palm prints, photographs, if requested by Gardai;
· A new requirement that notification is only possible by attending in person at the district/divisional Garda station in which the sex offender lives.
Head 36 also provides for the enhanced supervision of high risk offenders, including, in limited circumstances the electronic monitoring of offenders subject to post release supervision orders.
Risk assessment of sex offender and disclosure of information regarding offenders to be placed on a statutory footing
Head 28 of the Bill will place the risk assessment of sex offender on a statutory footing. This recognises in law the establishment of assessment teams to assess the risk posed by sex offenders. These teams are primarily led by An Garda Síochána and the Probation Service; with appropriate input from other services as necessary – such as, HSE, prison authorities etc.
The Minister stated: “Effectively, these provisions will ensure best practice in risk-assessing sex offenders, including the appropriate and proper exchange of information between those with responsibility for the monitoring of sex offenders.”
Head 30 of the Bill also provides a statutory basis for the necessary disclosure of information relating to an offender on the ‘sex offenders register’. The information which may be disclosed concerns the name, address and threat posed by the offender. The disclosure shall only be made to the minimum number of people necessary to avert any risk.
Increased protection for vulnerable persons
Heads 9 & 12 provide for increased protection for vulnerable persons. In relation to Head 12 work is continuing with a view to drafting new provisions to update and replace the existing offence of exploiting a person with mental impairment.
The Minister stated: “These proposals seek to better balance the need to respect the independence of the intellectually disabled while ensuring their protection from sexual exploitation.”
Introduction of new Harassment Order
Head 58 provides for the introduction of harassment orders. These orders may be imposed on persons convicted of sexual offences prohibiting that person from doing certain specified things which may cause fear, distress or alarm to the victim or his or her family or friends.
New provisions to be introduced regarding evidence by victims, particularly children
Minister welcomed Part 5 of the General Scheme which she said “sets out a number of sensitive amendments aimed at minimising the trauma on victims of sexual offences, particularly children.”
These include the ability to allow a child to give evidence in a courtroom from behind a screen and extend existing rules making it easier for children to give evidence in criminal prosecutions by way of video recording.
Head 52 specifically addresses the situation regarding the disclosure of third party therapy or counselling records in sexual abuse cases. The Bill proposes that in future the appropriateness of disclosing such records will be a matter for the court via a pre-trial hearing.
Gender anomaly in incest law to be addressed
Part 4 of the General Scheme provides for the alignment of the penalties for an offence committed by either a man or women in cases of incest.
Age of Consent to remain at 17
Head 20 of the Bill confirms that the age of consent to sexual activity will remain at 17 years of age. However, a proximity clause will be introduced which will not criminalise non-exploitative, consensual sexual relationships between peers where there is no more than 2 years in age difference between both parties.
The Minister stated: “I have considered this matter very carefully and I am of the view that the age of consent should remain at 17.”
The Minister also noted that the Head 21 of the Bill provide for a specific new criminal offence, including increased sanctions, in relation to a person in a position of authority talking advantage of their position to engage in sexual activity with a child.
Criminalisation of the purchase of sexual services
Heads 10 & 11 of the Bill include amendments to the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 1993 which will create new offences of purchasing sexual services, in the context of prostitution. The first is a general offence of purchasing sexual services and the second is the more serious offence of purchasing a sexual service from a trafficked person. In both cases, the persons selling the sexual service will not be subject to an offence. Unlike the existing offences relating to prostitution such as soliciting, loitering or brothel keeping, this offence will specifically target the demand for prostitution.
Minister Fitzgerald stated: “I am aware of the ongoing debate surrounding prostitution and of the views of both sides of the debate. However, I strongly believe that this proposal is the best suited to address the trafficking and exploitation associated with prostitution. It sends a clear message that purchasing sexual services contributes to exploitation.”
The Minister noted that Canada and the Nordic countries already have, or plan to implement, similar laws. The Minister further noted that the Northern Ireland Assembly recently took initial steps to adopt a similar approach to prostitution. The Minister said “the proposal I am announcing today reflects an All-Island consensus to targeting the predominantly exploitative nature of prostitution.”
The proposals included in the Heads of Bill have been developed following extensive consultation, initiated by the Department of Justice and Equality, dating back to 2012 and which includes a recommendation from the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Equality and Defence to introduce such an offence.
The General Scheme of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill 2014 will be available shortly on www.justice.ie