Sentencing guidelines for sexual assault offences

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Nick Titchener

Managing Partner


If you are accused of committing a sexual offence in the UK, the consequences can be severe and long term.

In contravention of The Sexual Offences Act 2003, sexual offences under UK law are extensive and complex and include:

  • Sexual abuse
  • Rape
  • Indecent assault
  • Indecent image charges
  • Historic sexual offences

The 2003 Sexual Offences Act is now used to define and determine the severity of all sexual offences committed in the UK and almost entirely replaced the Sexual Offences Act 1956, which was considered to be out of date and out of touch. The severity of the punishment decided in a sexual offence case will be determined on a case by case basis.

In updating the Sexual Offences Act 1956, the UK government were able to significantly change how certain sexual offences were defined.

The severity of cases involving sexual abuse, child abuse and sex trafficking was increased under the new Act, which also defines sexual offences and abuse scenarios that were not covered by the 1956 Act, such as those involving vulnerable adults who are liable to exploitation.

Sexual abuse defined under The Sexual Offences Act 2003

Sexual abuse is defined under The Sexual Offences Act 2003 in many different ways, including inappropriate sexual touching, or forcing someone else to watch or perform a sexual act. The Act also defines sexual offences including rape and sexual assault, providing clear definitions for certain sexual offences.

Sexual abuse is often alleged to have taken place when a person in a position of power or authority intentionally takes advantage of someone else to engage them in sexual activity.

Potential sexual abuse scenarios could involve:

  • An adult and a child
  • An older child and a younger child
  • A doctor and a patient
  • A teacher and a student
  • A vulnerable person by virtue of physical or mental impairment or disability

Cases of historic sexual abuse can still be prosecuted under UK law, as there is no time limit on cases of this nature. Acts of sexual abuse committed prior to 2003 are to be punished under the Sexual Offences Act 1956. There is often a complex overlap in terms of how courts view historic offences, given the change in both the law and social expectations.

What are the sentencing guidelines for sexual assault? 

The sentencing guidelines for sexual assault depend on the category of the offence and the culpability of the offender. Starting from community orders and extending to imprisonment, the sentences for sexual assault offences vary significantly.

Category 1 sexual assault 

Category 1 sexual assault is the highest level of sexual assault and is determined by factors including:

  • Causing severe psychological or physical harm to the victim 
  • Abduction
  • Violence and threats 
  • Breaking into the victim’s home

Category 2 sexual assault 

Category 2 sexual assault is the second highest level of sexual assault and is determined by factors including:

  • Touching of naked private body parts
  • Prolonged detention
  • Additional degradation or humiliation
  • Victim being vulnerable

Category 3 sexual assault

Category 3 is the lowest level of sexual assault and can only be given to cases where none of the factors seen in categories 1 and 2 are present. 

The culpability of the defendant  

When looking at the culpability of the defendant, there are two categories: culpability A and culpability B. 

Culpability A is determined by the following factors: 

  • The degree of planning by the offender
  • Acting with other people to commit the offence
  • Use of alcohol and/or drugs used on the victim 
  • Abuse of trust
  • Recording the offence
  • Previous violence against the victim 
  • Motivated by either race, sexual orientation or disability 

Culpability B is characterised by the absence of any of the factors listed above. 

Maximum sentence for sexual assault

The maximum sentence for sexual assault is given for offences that fall into category 1 of harm and culpability A. The starting point for an offence that is classified into this bracket is 4 years of custody, but in severe cases, it can be extended to up to 7 years of custody. 

Minimum sentence for sexual assault

The minimum sentence for sexual assault is given to offences that fall into category 3 of harm and culpability B. The starting point for these types of offences is a high-level community order, however, it can be reduced to a medium-level community order in less severe cases.

Sentencing for sexual offences in the UK

Some sexual offences are naturally regarded as more serious than others, with the punishment decided accordingly on a case-by-case basis depending on both the offence but also what the court determines to be aggravating and mitigating factors.

Punishments and sentencing for all sexual offences in the UK are decided in line with the Sentencing Council guidelines.

A case of rape, for example, will almost certainly be punishable by a prison sentence after a trial in the crown court. Even within a specific category of sexual offence such as rape, the severity of the prosecution can vary considerably depending on the factors involved in the case, for example regarding the provision of consent.

Cases regarded as being of a decreased severity may be heard in the magistrates’ court, proceeding to the crown court if applicable.

Other factors which are taken into consideration when deciding on a sentence for a criminal offence include:

  • The position of trust that the accused had over any victims
  • The presence of children at the time of the offence
  • The age of the children involved in the offence (if applicable)

If any of these factors are proven in the case, the severity of the sentence in any sexual offence is likely to considerably increase.

If you are accused of committing a sexual offence, you face often life changing repercussions, with lasting damage to your reputation. Almost any conviction for a sexual offence will involve a consideration of a prison sentence, inclusion on the sexual offences register and potential subjection to a Sexual Harm Prevention Order (SHPO). Each of these sentencing options can be incredibly onerous and require expert consideration and legal advice.

If you have been accused of committing a sexual offence, about a sexual abuse charge, you should seek expert legal advice as soon as you are able.

If you are found guilty, the punishment can vary depending on several factors. Expert legal advice and representation are vital in ensuring the most favourable outcome is achieved in your case.

At Lawtons Solicitors, our team of experienced sexual offence solicitors can provide expert, sensitive advice and support in all sexual offence cases.

We believe in ultimate discretion and we always aim to obtain the best possible outcome whilst limiting any reputational damage.

For more information or to discuss your individual case in complete confidence, please get in touch with us.

What to do if you’ve been accused of sexual assault

If you have been accused of sexual assault, you must seek legal advice from an expert sexual offence solicitor immediately. Under no circumstances should you speak to the police without a lawyer, nor should you be in contact with the complainant. 

Lawton Solicitors have years of experience dealing with sexual offence cases and will work with you to ensure you are fairly represented and that the best outcome is achieved.

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