What is the statute of limitations on sexual assault in the UK?

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Nick Titchener

Managing Partner

In Brief

Because of the proliferation of high-profile historic sex abuse cases, there has been debate about whether the UK should introduce a statute of limitations on sexual assaults. A statute of limitations is essentially an expiry date for allegations of crimes, and at the moment can only apply to summary offences. Those in favour of introducing one argue that cases from many years ago are incredibly difficult to prosecute, but those against say that vulnerable victims are often not aware they were abused until many years later.

Statute of limitations

The statute of limitations in the UK is effectively an expiry date for allegations of crimes. There are no statutory limits on the prosecution of crimes in the UK criminal courts, except for summary offences. Nullum tempus occurrit regi (time does not run against the crown) applies and charges can be brought after any period.

Summary offences are dealt with in the magistrates’ court. These include most motoring offences, minor criminal damage and charges of being drunk and disorderly. Sexual assault however is an indictable offence which is tried in the crown court. There is no statute of limitations on sexual assault.

There is only one limitation within the field of sexual crimes – for ‘unlawful sexual intercourse’ offences that took place between 1956 and 2004. This refers to cases of supposedly consensual sex with teenagers aged between 13 and 15, where a case must have been brought within a year.

Sexual assault definition

A sexual assault is any sexual act that a person did not consent to, or is forced into against their will.

Rape, or other sexual offences such as groping, forced kissing, child sexual abuse or the torture of a person in a sexual manner, are all classified as types of sexual assault.

Each offence is classified with various levels of severity.

Should the UK introduce the statute of limitations on sexual abuse?

High-profile historic sexual offence cases, such as the claims against Rolf Harris, have brought to light the long-running debate on whether the UK should have the statute of limitations for certain criminal offences, including sexual assault.

Some argue that the prosecution of historic offences constitutes a waste of vast amounts of time and money and that the fundamental principle of the statute of limitations is to protect the defendant.

There are two main reasons for this:

  1. The defendant can move on with their life without the constant threat of prosecution
  2. A fair trial. ‘It becomes so much more difficult to prosecute cases that occurred years and years ago’, says Jennifer Temkin, law professor at City University London. However, it is equally much more difficult to defend such cases as, for instance, memories can fade and exonerating evidence for a defendant may well be found to have gone missing after several decades have elapsed

Is there a justification for the UK not to introduce the statute of limitations on sexual abuse?

The main argument for not having the statute of limitations on sexual assault in the UK is that victims, especially children, might not have realised what was happening to them at the time, or they might have realised but been afraid to tell anyone either because of a feeling of shame or because of pressure from the offender to remain silent.

It is now clear that many genuine cases of sexual abuse did not come to light because of cultural or societal factors that existed many years ago. This is borne out by several cases involving priests from the Catholic church, where a number of successful prosecutions have shown that abuse was systemic within certain areas or churches. Sexual assault is undoubtedly an offence that causes shame, embarrassment and fear for the victim and it often leaves them feeling as though they’re somehow complicit in the abuse.

However, it is as important to recognise that just as with all criminal cases, not all complaints are justified or correct. One of the fundamental problems with historic cases arises from where the alleged victim is mistaken as to the identity of the alleged offender. Equally, there are and have been occasions when historic complaints have been made for ulterior motives, such as where the alleged victim has a grudge against an accused, which is not attributable to a sexual assault but for some other reason. Many such allegations are made by people with a history of maladjustment and who themselves may have been involved as defendants within the criminal justice system.

In defending historic allegations, it is important the defence team look into all of the circumstances and background of the case and also that of the accused wherever it may be relevant. Due to the age of these historic allegations, it does require a degree of expertise and understanding as to how these cases may be prosecuted and the things that can be done in defending them.

For now, the UK does not have the statute of limitations and even if it takes decades for a victim to speak up or evidence to come to light, you can still be prosecuted for historic sex crimes. If you have been accused of sexual assault, it is crucial you seek confidential, expert advice about how to proceed as soon as possible.

Lawtons have an established history of defending sexual assault cases, especially historic ones, and have criminal defence offices in London & the surrounding areas. Call 0333 577 0522 or make an enquiry for more information.

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