The Justice Department wants your views on how best to beat internet grooming and child abuse
The Department of Justice wants to know the public’s views on proposals to overhaul the way it combats child sexual exploitation (CSE).
Online exploitation is an area we, as a society, are still adapting to and trying to find solutions for.
At the same time, other forms of abuse have also come into the spotlight recently – such as with large-scale and high-profile cases of grooming gangs in England.
Research shows that one in nine 16-year-olds in Northern Ireland has experienced some form of grooming and one in 15 reported they had been taken advantage of while under the influence of drink or drugs.
The DoJ’s consultation into the review of the law on child sexual exploitation opened last week and notes that the PSNI “recorded 1,875 sexual offences against victims under 18 in 2016/17. This represents an increase of 3.6% from 2015/16 (1,809 sexual offences recorded against under 18s) and a further 23.7% increase from 2014/15 (1,516 sexual offences recorded against under 18s). The data only reflects the year in which an offence was reported, rather than when it was committed.”
In 2017/18 there were 10 recorded cases of child abduction in NI, as well as 123 of harassment and 121 of malicious communications (including the offence of disclosing private sexual photographs and film with intent to cause distress) against people under the age of 18.
The Department believes that currents laws in Northern Ireland are fairly robust and well equipped to deal with these offences, but that improvements could be made.
The DoJ wants the public’s views and suggestions in relation to 14 different proposals. Several of of these relate to the online world, including:
Inclusion of live streamed images in child sexual exploitation offences – amendment of the law to make clear that child sexual exploitation offences include images that are live streamed as well as recorded.
Indecent ‘self’ images of children under 18 – the DoJ is seeking views on changing the law to allow children under 18 to take (and share) indecent images of themselves.
The consultation actually proposes no changes to this law because “there are legitimate child protection reasons to maintain the current offence, and there is no evidence that children under 18 are being unnecessarily criminalised for sharing indecent images of themselves”.
A Justice Committee report from 2015 (Justice in the 21st Century, see below) called for an exemption here so children or young people would not be criminalised for taking images of themselves.
Using online anonymity to harass – asking whether new provisions should be introduced to address situations where individuals use online anonymity to harass others.
The DoJ’s starting point is that the status quo is appropriate and no adjustments are needed – again, this is in disagreement with the 2015 Justice Committee report, which was concerned about a low number of prosecutions in cases where individuals exploit internet anonymity to create multiple accounts to abuse another person.
The committee wanted to allow longer sentences for aggravated harassment – but the DoJ has stated that misuse of anonymity can already be considered an aggravating factor by judges when deciding sentences in criminal harassment cases.
Adults masquerading as children online – the Justice Committee proposed a new law prohibiting adults from pretending to be under 18 and engaging online with individuals they know or believe to be under 18.
However, the DoJ sees no need for altering the law here because when adults use the internet for communications of a sexual or grooming nature with children and young people this is covered by existing laws. The consultation paper states: “There does not appear to be any clear reason why the law should seek to criminalise individuals in such circumstances where they have no intention of committing an offence and where they pose no risk to children.”
This consultation stems from commitments made by previous Justice Ministers to consider ways to improve the law, on foot of previous investigations into the situation in NI.
The Marshall Report, an independent inquiry finished in 2014, highlighted six areas of potential improvement, making 17 key recommendations and 60 supporting ones. Three further proposals were made specifically in relation to online child sexual exploitation by the Justice Committee in their report Justice in the 21st Century, a year later.
Online abuse is an area of particular concern. It is a new area of justice – obviously, given popular use of the internet is a little over 20 years old, while smart phones and other tech advances mean usage has changed and proliferated in the past decade
Per the consultation: “Recent digital and technological advancements have changed the way in which many perpetrators target children and carry out abuse. There have been significant increases in online and technology-based offending such as online grooming, ‘sexting’, revenge pornography and live streaming. There have also been increases in image-based abuse, as indecent images and films depicting abuse can be made and shared quickly and easily while perpetrators exploit the anonymity and encryption of the ‘dark web’.
“The rapid expansion of high speed internet access, combined with the ease with which children, from a very young age, can access it on a range of devices such as tablets, phones, smart televisions and games consoles, allows perpetrators to interact with children easily and instantaneously from almost anywhere in the world. The use of technology allows perpetrators to use a ‘scattergun approach’ to target large numbers of children using blanket messaging across a number of platforms, in the hope that a few of the children respond.
“Online abuse, including online sexual exploitation and sexting, are growing areas of concern for organisations delivering support services to children and young people.”
The consultation notes that, in 2016/17, ChildLine delivered 12,248 counselling sessions about online safety and abuse (up 9% from the previous year), and 2,132 sessions on online child sexual exploitation (up 44%), and that “Sexting” has been the most viewed topic on the ChildLine information pages for the last four years.
“There are significant challenges in ensuring that the criminal law, as part of the overarching framework of legislation, policies and procedures to prevent and stop abuse, is adequate to address the changing way in which perpetrators operate. In particular, there is a need to ensure that existing offences remain appropriate in light of the changing nature of CSE, and to put in place new or amended measures if any ‘gaps’ in the law emerge.”
In an unfortunately familiar caveat, the DoJ adds that “significant policy changes” or amendments to the law are impossible for now and will have to await ministerial direction.
However, this consultation – which closes on April 16 – still provides a chance to develop comprehensive policy proposals “which will be ready to be considered and taken forward… once the Executive is restored.”
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