The Sexual Offences Act 2003 is used to define and determine the severity of all sexual offences in the UK. The Act almost entirely replaced the Sexual Offences Act 1956, with the exception of four sections regarding brothels, which make it illegal to run, or help to run, a brothel in the UK.

In updating the Sexual Offences Act 1956, the UK government were able to significantly change how certain sexual offences were defined whilst also updating previous outdated laws on homosexuality from the 1956 Act. They were also able to respond to public opinion and increase the severity of cases involving sexual abuse, child abuse and sex trafficking and tackle scenarios that had not been covered by the 1956 Act, such as those involving vulnerable adults which are liable to exploitation.

What constitutes sexual abuse?

The Sexual Offences Act 2003 categorises many different types of sexual abuse and also defines offences including rape and sexual assault.

As a general rule, an act of sexual abuse is determined 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.

These kinds of relationships can take all sorts of forms, but potential sexual abuse scenarios could involve:

  1. An adult and a child
  2. A doctor and their patient
  3. A teacher and a student
  4. A member of staff and a resident at a care home
  5. An older child and a younger child

The scope of potential sexual abuse scenarios means that every case is treated differently. As has been made clear in recent high-profile cases, historic sexual abuse committed decades ago can and does still continue to come to trial. It is possible for acts of sexual abuse committed before 2003 to be punished according to the Sexual Offences Act 1956, if it is believed that that is how justice would best be served.

Sexual abuse cases can be defined by all kinds of actions, from rape as defined in the Sexual Offences Act 2003, to inappropriate sexual touching, or forcing someone else to watch or perform a sexual act. As a result, the particular details of each offence that emerge over the course of a case are of great importance in determining what is of relevance in a sexual abuse case.

What are the punishments for sexual abuse?

The severity of punishment in a sexual abuse case is determined on a case by case basis. The punishment will depend on the particular offence that may be alleged, with some offences being viewed much more seriously.

If the allegation is one of rape – where an act of non-consensual penetration has occurred –  the courts will almost inevitably consider imposing a prison sentence. However, even within a specific category of sexual offence such as rape, the severity of the prosecution can vary considerably depending on the factors involved, for example where there is confusion as to whether there had been consent given by the victim or where there had been consent but that it had been withdrawn.

Other factors such as the presence of children, the age of the children involved (if applicable) and the position of trust that the accused had over any victims tend to greatly increase the severity of the sentence in any sexual offence.

What to do if you are accused of sexual assault

If you are concerned about a sexual abuse charge, it is advisable to seek specialist legal advice as soon as you are able.

If you are found guilty of sexual abuse the punishment can vary depending on a number of factors and expert advice and representation is vital in ensuring the best and most favourable outcome is achieved.

For more information on legal proceedings surrounding sexual abuse or to discuss an individual case in complete confidence, please get in touch with our team of specialist sexual offence solicitors.