By The Evening Standard, Thursday 12th December 2013
Previous “good character” may be considered as an aggravating factor when it has been used to commit a sexual offence, new guidelines drawn up by the Sentencing Council said.
In practice, this means in the future the likes of disgraced It’s A Knockout presenter Stuart Hall, who used his fame to commit crimes against women and children, could receive more severe sentences.
Covering more than 50 offences including rape, child sex offences and trafficking, the official guidance places more emphasis on the long-term and psychological impact on victims than the previous 2004 guidelines it will replace next year.
The new guidelines also bring in higher starting points for sentences for some offences, such as rape, which the new guideline now allows a starting point of 15 years for top category sentences.
“Across the justice system, changes have been made to ensure that the alleged offenders’ behaviour and the context and circumstances of the incident are scrutinised, rather than the credibility of the victim,” Chief Constable David Whatton, national policing lead for violence and public protection, said.
Other significant changes include the removal of “ostensible consent” from the guidance, that is, the idea that a child over 13 can agree to sex, while greater emphasis will be placed on grooming by individuals and gangs.
Although work on the new guidelines started a number of years ago, it comes after a series of high- profile sex offence cases, which have had an impact on attitudes towards sex crimes.
Revelations about disgraced TV presenter Jimmy Savile saw high numbers of sex attack victims come forward, while cases involving grooming gangs in Rochdale and Oxford raised questions about social care and attitudes to victims.
Sentencing Council chairman Lord Justice Treacy said: “This guideline will make real changes to the way offenders are sentenced for these very serious, sensitive and complex offences.
“It will help judges and magistrates sentence in a way which protects our communities from this kind of offending and the suffering it causes.
Lord Justice Treacy said the new approach would bring about sentences that reflected what the victim had been through and take in a full profile of what the offender had done, such as grooming victims or abusing trust.
“No-one wants more people falling victim to offenders who come before the courts, and public protection is central to this guideline, whether this is by jailing offenders or, where appropriate, imposing a rigorous treatment order and other restrictions to prevent reoffending,” he said.
The new guidance also takes into account the increased use of technology in sex offending since the previous guidelines were issued.
In many of the offences, a new aggravating factor is “recording the crime”, as filming and photographing victims has become more common.
Due to the growth in online offending, the Council has included offending committed remotely, such as via a webcam, when dealing with offences like sexual activity with a child.
Judges will also have to take into account aspects such as offenders lying about their age, grooming via social media or asking children to share indecent photos of themselves.
The guidelines, which will come into effect next April, are the largest most complex produced by the council and were drawn up after a consultation with victims groups, judges, magistrates, lawyers, the police, NGOs, the Government, academics, medical practitioners and the wider public.
While the Sentencing Council can recommend a starting point, offenders can still only receive the maximum sentence available at the time the offence was committed.
Barnardo’s deputy director of strategy Alison Worsley said: “It is difficult to imagine the torment experienced by the vulnerable victims of crimes such as these.
“The publication of this new sentencing guideline will help to ensure the focus is on the perpetrator and not the victim.
“As the guideline emphasises, it is plain wrong to imply in any way that the experiences of sexually-exploited children are something they bring on themselves.”
Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “There are often long waiting lists for sex offence treatment programmes in prisons and, despite a recognition by the Sentencing Council of internet-based offending, there are currently no treatment programmes which address this in prison.
“This poses a significant challenge to indeterminate sentenced prisoners who have to satisfy the Parole Board that they are no longer a risk.
“Supportive services in the community such as CirclesUK provide an important contribution to rehabilitation, enabling people to take greater responsibility and reducing their level of risk.”
Victims’ commissioner Baroness Helen Newlove, whose husband Garry was killed by a gang vandalising his car, said: ” These guidelines highlight how vital it is for the court to fully consider the physical and emotional trauma that a victim goes through before making a decision. ”
Carolyn Hodrien, lead on rape and sexual offences for independent charity Victim Support, said welcomed the greater focus the guidelines placed on the impact on the victim.
“It takes real courage for a victim to report these horrific crimes and it is vital they know that the criminal justice system will focus on the credibility of their evidence and the long-term impact the crime has had on them, not their perceived vulnerabilities.”
Peter Wanless, NSPCC chief executive, said: “It is important that sentencing reflects the severe damage caused by highly manipulative and devious sex offenders, who may use positions of trust or celebrity status to target children.
“Increasingly technology is playing a part in the way offenders seek out and groom children, who may attempt suicide or self-harm as a result of their abuse. It is right that the guidelines reflect the harm caused and the people who cause this misery feel the full weight of the law.
“The outdated view that children can in some way be complicit in their abuse must be stamped out. The new guidance is a step in the right direction towards addressing this terrible myth.”
Lord Justice Treacy said it was “coincidental” that the Hall and Savile cases emerged while the guidance was already being worked on.
He acknowledged that “perhaps we should have” been quicker to recognise that children in sex cases should always be treated as victims rather than being involved in contributing to the crime.
The judge told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We are sending out a very strong message that the focus is on what the offender did and what his motivation was and that the child victim should not be treated as contributing to the offence.”