Sex abuse victims thwarted by out-of-date law

Scales of Justice There is now no time limit for prosecuting those who engage in sexual intercourse with a child

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An old law may stop women in England and Wales, who were groomed for sex as teenage girls before 2004, from bringing charges against the people who took advantage of them. The issue was highlighted when two women were told they could not press charges because they did not report the abuse to the police within 12 months of it happening.

Confident and successful, Sylvie (not her real name) now works in a high-powered job.

She is far removed from her teenage self, when she was exploited for sex during a naive and impressionable time of her life.

As she reflects on that period, her anger about what happened becomes apparent.

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She was 14 when a teacher started inviting her to his home. "I liked him so I was happy just to go, thinking that I was going to hang out," she told Radio 4's The Report.

"I thought that maybe he was going to be my boyfriend. He had a girlfriend but I sort of disregarded that. I could tell that he liked me. So I went to his house with that in mind."

This was back in the 1990s and initially she spent a lot of time with the man just watching television. But it quite quickly became more physical.

"I had a bit of a crush on him so I went along with that. And he did it quite gradually - it all went in baby steps."

Things escalated over the next six months as the teacher built up her trust until eventually she had sex with him.

Start Quote

Keir Starmer

There may be cases and we will have to deal with those as we go along”

End Quote Keir Starmer Director of public prosecutions

"I think I quite quickly knew that I had crossed a line that I wished I hadn't crossed. As soon as that had happened I knew that it was really wrong and I wasn't his girlfriend. I knew that I had been used. It felt very automatic and very cold."

She kept it to herself for years until she heard rumours that the teacher was suspected of doing the same thing to other teenage girls.

Almost two decades on she decided to contact the police.

'Horrendous ordeal'

So too had another woman, saying the same thing had happened to her. Jane, (not her real name) had also been invited to the same teacher's home.

"I never had crushes on pop stars or anything but he was just dreamy. I knew that if I was to hold his attention, because he was a man, he would have expectations that were different from boys of my age," she said.

"Although I wasn't ready to do those things I also knew that he was the one, that I was very much in love and that if I wanted to hold on to him that I would have to satisfy him and so I felt a pressure."

When the police took their statements they seemed convinced they could charge the man. But after nearly a year of investigating, the women were told the case would not go ahead.

Because the abuse took place in the 1990s it fell under the old 1956 Sexual Offences Act, which set a 12-month time limit for 14- and 15-year-old female victims to report acts of unlawful sex.

Sylvie and Jane were unable to press charges because, all those years ago, neither of them had reported the abuse to the police within that period of time.

In the past, the police used to sidestep the loophole by charging men with indecent assault instead. However, that avenue was closed to them by a House of Lords ruling in 2004.

When she found out, Sylvie said it was devastating, especially after waiting so long to come forward.

"I didn't understand how they could have gone the best part of the year and I would just be hearing about that. It was horrible. I just collapsed on the floor and just felt I had gone through this horrendous ordeal for nothing."

Dr Jonathan Rogers from University College London has studied this loophole in the 1956 Sexual Offences Act.

"It seems to me that this time limit problem must throw all the historic investigations relating to offences committed before 2004 into complete disarray. The whole essences of the prosecutions are going to be completely distorted if we have to take the sex out of it, as it were."

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It is not possible to make the 2003 Act retrospective”

End Quote The Ministry of Justice

The director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer, recognises there is an issue but says he does not want it to deter women from coming forward: "There may be cases and we will have to deal with those as we go along, but I don't want to give the impression that this is something that we are regularly encountering."

Protecting children

New legislation is now in place, meaning the old restrictions no longer apply for cases after 2003.

Under the Sexual Offences Act, introduced in 2004, men who have sex with girls aged 14 and 15 can be prosecuted for grooming, abuse of trust and sexual activity with a child under 16.

The police are now trying to find other options in Jane and Sylvie's case. Experts say the only solution is government legislation.

The Ministry of Justice told The Report: "There is now no time limit for prosecuting those who engage in sexual intercourse with a child, and those found guilty face a maximum 14-year prison sentence.

"While it is not possible to make the 2003 Act retrospective, we will continue to look for ways to meet the 21st Century challenges of protecting children."

You can listen again to The Report on BBC Radio 4 via the Radio 4 website or The Report download.

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