What to do if you are accused of a historic sex crime

Reviewed by Nick Titchener on 6th December 2023

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Nick Titchener

Managing Partner

Yew Tree

What is a historic offence?

A historic sex crime could be any sexual offence, including rape, sexual assault or indecent images offences. What makes the crime historical is that it took place some years ago. That doesn’t necessarily mean decades ago: it could be an offence from much more recent times, such as a few years ago.

The number of historic sex crime allegations made in the UK is on the rise. It’s estimated that of the 20% increase in reported sex crimes throughout the UK, over a third of them are historic cases. The number of historic sex crime allegations made in the UK is on the rise in 2023.

Historic sexual assault cases are often extremely difficult and complex, particularly when the alleged offences happened many years ago. Being accused of a historic sex crime is likely to make you feel victimised and alone, considering the stigma behind allegations of this nature.

Your reputation can be quickly and irreparably damaged by rumours and speculation surrounding any allegations of sexual misconduct, so it’s important that you contact legal experts sexual assault defence solicitors right away.

How are historical sexual abuse cases judged?

You need to know exactly where you stand, what it is that you are being accused of and what the potential consequences are.

The law has changed since the time when some alleged offences may have allegedly taken place. The law that may be applied to historic sexual offences will probably be ‘old law’, dating back to the Sexual Offences Act of 1956. This law doesn’t cover ‘new’ crimes that have taken place.

The current law is governed by the Sexual Offences Act of 2003, which:

  • Changed the previous law
  • Created new offence categories
  • Gave offences new titles
  • Changed the punishments that the courts could impose

The law now is very different to what it was under the previous 1956 legislation. This is just one of the reasons why it is important to have an expert legal representative who understands both the old laws and system, plus the new ones too.

There is a fundamental principle that the law is not to be applied retrospectively. If this was the case, then everyone who had ever smoked in a car with a child present would be subject to a £50 fine. It’s integral to justice that the law is not applied retrospectively and is even considered a human right by the European Council. This means that charges brought against you will be sentenced based on the law at the time of the offence – including your own circumstances. However, even this is not as clear cut as it might be.

This is because the courts’ approach to historical sexual assault or abuse cases is also intended to reflect public attitudes that are relevant now. This is clearly illustrated in the case of historic sex offences. In 1960, the maximum sentence for indecent assault on an underage girl was 2 years’ imprisonment. Since then, new categories of offence have been introduced under the Sexual Offences Act of 2003.

In the case of Rolf Harris, he was convicted of committing crimes during the 1960s and as such, the maximum sentence he was issued for a single charge was 15 months’ imprisonment. Depending on the circumstances, long-term imprisonment may not always be a consequence as the court will look at the overall picture – including, for example:

  • The number of alleged offences
  • Whether there was a breach of trust where the accuser was considered particularly vulnerable
  • Whether the accused was in a special position that enabled the offence(s) to take place

Why you might be accused of historical sexual abuse

If you are accused of a historical sex crime, there is a very good chance that you will know your accuser personally and you may have even regularly interacted with them. It’s for this reason that historic sex crime allegations are relatively unique – it means you can gain an insight into why the accuser is making accusations and may allow you to create an even more robust defence strategy.

There are some fairly common reasons why complainants have started initiating proceedings for historical sex crimes, including:

  • Seeking financial gain in the form of a payoff or compensation
  • Seeking revenge for a familial break up
  • Seeking revenge for ulterior motives which can be involved and complex, perhaps due to psychological or psychiatric issues
  • Acting on circumstantial evidence in a perceived quest for justice

It is perceived that false allegations are rarely prosecuted, so it’s vital you consider the possible motives of your accusers to help build a strong defence strategy.

As many historic sex crime cases are underpinned on the word of the complainant, it is imperative that a forensic examination of the evidence takes place to expose any inconsistencies that exist, often by looking at alternative sources of evidence or by finding independent witnesses that can expose inconsistencies.

In turn, this can have a snowball effect in undermining the whole case against you, which can result in truths being established and justice being achieved. It takes a solid strategy to exploit any untruths and weaken any accusatory case.

How to defend yourself against accusations of historical sexual abuse

With the advice and expertise of a specialist legal team, you will be able to talk through the intricacies of your case with a criminal defence solicitor with a robust knowledge of historical sex crime law. The process is complex and can be lengthy, so it will require patience and perseverance.

Finding the right defence strategy is key to achieving a positive outcome and acting on the advice of an experienced criminal defence solicitor will enable you to take the right actions and cooperate with the police without jeopardising your defence case.

How are historic sexual offences investigated?

Many historic sexual assault cases begin with a verbal statement or accusation, as physical evidence isn’t likely to exist as a result of the age of the accusations. Statements can also be unreliable evidence where witnesses or accusers are referring to events alleged to have occurred many years ago, particularly with allegations of crimes in the very distant past.

Therefore the police and prosecution service will attempt, as best they can, to see if there is evidence to support the accuser’s version of events or undermine it if the case is disputed. They could look through old files from schools and local authorities, as well as, potentially, searching your home.

You will also be interviewed by the police, during which it is vital that you have specialist legal representation.

How can historical sexual abuse be proven in the UK?

In historical sexual abuse cases, it can be difficult to prove the facts due to the passage of time – particularly as physical evidence is unlikely to be found.

However, investigators can attempt to accumulate evidence in several ways. These typically include:

  • Speaking to people who the victim told at the time of the offence or around the time of it – to see if they can recall any relevant details
  • Consulting old police case files if the offence was reported at the time
  • Looking at what is know as third party material, such as old school or medical records
  • Speaking to other victims if any have come forward
  • Seeking witness testimony, wherever possible
  • Examining the suspect’s phones, computers and other potential sources of evidence discovered during a property search

If the Crown Prosecution Service decides that there’s sufficient evidence, you’ll be charged with the offence. It’s then the job of the prosecution to prove your guilt to a jury.

A witness can provide testimony in either a written witness statement or through a Video Recorded Interview (VRI) which in turn provides a firsthand account of events from individuals who have directly observed or experienced sexual abuse. The police will often also seek to gather additional evidence from other sources, which in turn contribute crucial details to a case, enhancing the overall reliability and depth of information available to the court. The credibility of witnesses and their ability to recount events will play a key role in influencing legal outcomes, and when assessing the credibility of historic allegations. It is also through robustly challenging and testing this witness that historic allegations can be undermined and may not be proven to the criminal standard required for a conviction. 

Who investigates in cases of historical sexual abuse?

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) was widely criticised for failing to prosecute in high-profile sexual assault and abuse cases throughout 2014. The police have also been extensively criticised in recent years for failing to take action historically. The misgivings and perceived failures of the police – as highlighted by Operation Yew Tree and the high profile cases of various former celebrities including Rolf Harris, Sir Cliff Richard and Jimmy Savile – has led to a highly proactive investigation of all such historic allegations.

In relation to historic sexual offences, the current attitude of the police and CPS differs considerably to several years ago. In the event that an allegation is made of a historic nature, it is perceived by some that the CPS may now prosecute a case without substantial corroborative evidence, where they would previously have been reluctant to do so.

In practice, if you are accused of such an offence, regrettably it means that police and Crown Prosecution Service may be more willing to act upon historic sex crime allegations than ever before.

An allegation of a historic sex crime can be a particularly challenging area of the law, particularly as it is only a relatively new offence, with a new approach from the authorities. It’s vital that you appoint an expertise in historic and present law to achieve the best possible outcome for you.

What are the sentencing guidelines for historic sexual assault?

Sentences for historic sexual offences are generally based upon the penalties in place when the offence was committed but the court will have regard to the current sentencing guidelines. For example, between 1 January 1957 and 30 April 2004, the sentence for rape was life imprisonment, as it was for buggery of a person or animal. If the offence was committed during this time, the Sexual Offences Act 1956 will be the predominant piece of legislation, rather than the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which governs all offences committed after this date.

In addition to a possible custodial sentence, you could be fined and would be required to sign the Sex Offenders Register. You could also become subject to a restraining order of a sexual harm prevention order.

Contact us for advice, assistance or to discuss the intricacies of your case with our criminal defence solicitors in London.

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