Over the last few years, particularly since the allegations of sexual abuse against Jimmy Savile and Harvey Weinstein came to light, the cases of historic sexual abuse have rarely been out of the news.
High profile cases such as those involving celebrities and employees of institutions including football clubs have perhaps encouraged victims from all walks of life to come forward.
A general principle of English law is that an offender can expect to be sentenced according to how the law was at the time the offence was committed. In other words, the law cannot apply retrospectively as this would not be fair to preparators. For example,
If the consumption of alcohol was made a criminal offence today, it would not be just to penalise someone for drinking it yesterday, when it was not a crime. We must understand that fairness, justice and equity are the cornerstones of English Legal system and It is only fair that the outcome of any offence should be based on the laws at the time when someone decided to take a certain course of action.
Societal attitudes toward all forms of sexual abuse have changed over the last few decades and are generally taken more seriously today. Modern sentencing guidelines reflect this, with higher penalties being handed to offenders.
However, judges may refer to modern sentencing guidelines when determining punishments, even if they are restricted as to upper limits of punishment. Historic sexual offenders will also have to be included on the sex offenders register, which may not have existed at the time of the offence, as it came into practice in 1997, even if their crimes were committed before that time.
Judges may take into account the age of the offender; either their current old age if a lot of time has elapsed since the offence, or if the offender was particularly young at the time of the offence. For example, the offender may have been 16 at the time but is now 50. He may only be sentenced as was applicable to a 16-year-old would have been at that point in time.
There are no limits on how much time can pass before an accusation of sexual abuse can be made.
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This article is written by our legal content writer James Chalkley (LLB. LLM.)