The United Kingdom has three criminal law jurisdictions, England and Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. Each jurisdiction has its own sexual offences legislation. While these are very similar or identical in most respects, they have been assessed separately in this research.
In England and Wales, sexual offences laws are found in the Sexual Offences Act 2003 as amended (SOA England and Wales). The Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 and the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 contain the rules of evidence which apply to sexual assault offences.
In Northern Ireland, sexual offences laws are found in the Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008, as amended (SOO Northern Ireland). The Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 1996 and the Criminal Evidence (Northern Ireland) Order 1999 contain the rules of evidence which apply to sexual assault offences.
In Scotland, sexual offences laws are set out in the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009 as amended (SOA Scotland). The Sexual Offences (Procedure and Evidence) (Scotland) Act 2002 amended the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1995 to restrict the use of evidence of the prior sexual history of the complainant. The Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm (Scotland) Act 2016 introduced a range of procedural and substantive rules regarding sexual offences.
Many of the provisions covered by this review meet good practice standards. For example, each jurisdiction includes crimes to cover all forms of non-consensual sexual penetration – by penis, objects and other body parts – of all orifices. Non-penetrative offences are broadly defined to include all forms of sexual assault and most offences carry serious penalties. There is an extensive array of child sexual assault provisions, no moralistic terminology is used, and consensual same-sex sexual activity is not a crime. The age of consent is 16 years throughout the UK.
Note that England and Wales and Northern Ireland maintain the offence of consensual ‘sexual activity in a public lavatory’ (s 71 SOA England and Wales; s 75 SOO Northern Ireland). There is no equivalent offence in Scotland. The offence applies to same-sex and opposite-sex sexual activity. However, it has historically been used disproportionately to target gay men. Given its association with discrimination against gay men, this offence should be repealed and replaced by a general offence of sexual activity in public. Note that sex in any public place is also an offence under the common law crime of ‘outraging public decency’.
In England and Wales and Northern Ireland, the laws explicitly state that corroboration of a sexual assault complaint is not required. However, in Scotland corroboration is required for a range of offences, including sexual offences. The Government has said this is under review. Other areas of the law that do not meet good practice include the lack of close-in-age defences for child sexual assaults to prevent criminalising consensual sexual activity between young people in England and Wales.
In both Northern Ireland and Scotland, evidence of a complainant’s prior sexual conduct, including with the accused, is admissible with certain requirements and safeguards. In Northern Ireland this rule was the subject of a recent review. In 2019, the Report into the Law and Procedures in Serious Sexual Offences in Northern Ireland: Recommendations (the Gillen Report) recommended revising these provisions, as well as the consent provisions. At the time of writing, these revisions had not been made.
The United Kingdom is a state party to relevant international human rights treaties, including the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, Convention on the Rights of the Child, Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It is a party to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, but has not ratified the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence 2011 (Istanbul Convention).
The full assessment of the United Kingdom is available here.