How long after a sexual crime can you be charged in the UK?

Reviewed by Nick Titchener on 23rd August 2023

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Nick Titchener

Managing Partner

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Sexual crimes are regarded as extremely serious by the police and criminal justice system, particularly if:

  1. There is a suggestion that the crime was a repeat offence
  2. There is the possibility of future offences being committed
  3. An abuse of power took place

How long the police have to charge you with a crime depends on the severity of the crime.

Sexual offenders can be charged and taken to court at any point in time after the offence was committed, as long as the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) are satisfied that:

  1. There is sufficient evidence
  2. There is a realistic prospect of a conviction
  3. It is in the interests of justice for the case to go ahead

Even if it takes decades for the necessary evidence to come to light, prosecution will still go forward if the case is serious and there is evidence of an offence being committed. This evidence can sometimes be on the word or statement of the person claiming to be the victim. This has been the case with a number of historic sexual assault cases, albeit there is often some other corroborative behaviour or evidence that the prosecution will seek to rely upon.

Can the police charge you for a sexual offence without evidence?

As with any crime, a person cannot be charged for committing a sexual offence unless there is enough evidence to suggest a realistic prospect of a conviction. You cannot be charged by the police if there is no evidence of an offence being committed.

In the case of sexual crimes, evidence is likely to be a combination of forensic evidence –  including DNA samples and evidence from the crime scene – together with witness statements. However, where the allegation may date back several years, such as when the defendant is accused with historic sexual abuse, the type of evidence that the police or CPS may rely on can be very different and will rarely involve the gathering of DNA samples or forensic based evidence.

Historic sexual crimes

Historic sexual crime cases are often more complex and raise many more questions as it can become harder to pin down the nature of a crime with the more time that passes. However, there is absolutely no time period after which it is impossible to charge someone with a historic allegation of sexual assault or rape.

Even if the law has changed since the crime was committed, a defendant can be charged according to the law at the time of the assault. This is particularly relevant where the alleged offence dates back to 2003 and earlier, as offences prior to the Sexual Offences Act 2003 were governed in the main by the Sexual Offences Act 1956.

Due to the sensitive and distressing nature of sexual crimes, it is not uncommon for alleged victims to have had concerns about reporting the crime in the past. This is often the case as there may have been a perception that they would not be believed. This was shown in recent high profile cases involving celebrities charged with offences of sexual abuse.

It does not matter if it takes decades for a victim of a sexual crime to come forwards, as if their statements provide sufficient grounds to charge someone, that person will be charged for the offence. However, sometimes the reasons for why the complaint is being made many years after the alleged sexual assault or abuse need to be looked at with a little more care and with greater scrutiny, as these are often complex cases that need to be thoroughly examined from an accused or defendant’s perspective.

What is a statement to the police?

When a sexual crime is reported to the police, they will ask for a statement to be made by the alleged victim. This statement may be written down or it may involve the police videoing what the person is saying to ensure that the account and complaint is clearly recorded.

An initial police statement is a basic account of the alleged crime by the witness, which will include a description of:

  1. What happened
  2. When the offence took place
  3. Where the offence took place
  4. Whether or not the witness knows who committed the crime

Of course, sometimes the witness is not necessarily a victim of the crime. They are simply someone who believes that a crime has been committed or can provide information in support or relevance to the investigation.

The decision as to whether a witness statement is recorded by the police in writing or by video depends on whether the police consider the witness to be vulnerable person or an intimidated victim. In either case, the police will ask questions to ensure every relevant detail is recorded in the statement. Once a statement has been recorded, it is up to the CPS to decide whether or not the crime should proceed to prosecution.

If a reported sexual offence moves ahead to a prosecution, all the witness statements that led to that decision will go forward as part of the evidence, which is likely to be heard in court. The defence are entitled to disclosure of all of those statements at that stage. Witnesses may be required to make additional appearances in court once the trial has started.

How does the CPS decide whether to prosecute?

As prosecuting someone has serious effects on that person’s life, there are strict rules in place to guide the process. The CPS has two main concerns when deciding whether to prosecute:

  1. Is there enough evidence against the defendant to provide a realistic prospect of a conviction?
  2. Does the public interest require or justify a prosecution?

The evidence element is clear: if there is not enough evidence to suggest that a jury is more likely than not to find a defendant guilty, then the CPS will not let the case go to prosecution. Public interest can vary from case to case and has particular relevance to sexual crimes.

In determining the public interest of a crime, the CPS considers numerous factors. These include the views expressed by the victim. In the case of sexual crimes, if the victim feels that the offender is likely to offend again, or they have caused particular trauma, there would be clear grounds to proceed with a prosecution.

If the offence is severe, affects multiple people, represents a long-standing abuse of power or involves children, the CPS is more likely to prosecute.

What should you do if you have been accused of a sexual crime?

If you have been accused of committing a sexual crime or offence, it is crucial you seek confidential, expert legal advice about how to proceed as soon as possible. At Lawtons, we have an established history of defending all types of sexual offences, especially complex, historic and serious cases.

For information and advice in complete confidence, get in touch with our team of sexual offence solicitors.

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