BSQ Briefing - Indecent Images - Time to reform the Law?

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Simon Bailey, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for child protection made headlines last week when he called for law enforcement agencies to focus their resources on pursuing high risk offenders who viewed indecent images of children online. He complained that with 400 men a month arrested for this type of conduct, police forces were stretched to breaking point in dealing with these cases.

In making these remarks Mr Bailey drew a valuable distinction between those individuals whose online activities are targeted at making contact with children with a view to committing serious sexual offences and those who are not.

There can be no argument that law enforcement agencies should be vigilant and use all available means to apprehend those criminals who pose a risk of contact offending.

But, from our experience the vast majority of those individuals accused of viewing or downloading indecent images do not pose such a risk.

BSQ’s criminal defence team has extensive experience of representing individuals who are either under investigation or facing prosecution having viewed illegal material online. By and large our clients are professional individuals with no previous criminal history. Normally the police will be alerted to their online activities from reports submitted by their ISP providers, not from concerns from any chatroom activity. There is often little indication from their personal or family background that would suggest they pose any risk of contact offending. Many times their behaviour can be described as solitary and compulsive – typically an individual may have downloaded huge amounts of adult legal porn and other material as well as illegal child porn. They may not have viewed all of it. There will be no history of social media or other online interaction with children.

Sadly, this type of behaviour sadly appears to far more widespread that the headline statistic of 400 arrests a month would suggest. A recent report by the NSPCC suggests the number of individuals looking at such images could exceed half a million and constituted a "social emergency". The scale of the problem explains why some police forces, rather than arresting suspects in these cases are issuing cease and desist warning notices to first time offenders.

Against this background we believe efforts to divert those offenders who do not pose a risk of contact offending away from the criminal justice system to treatment within the community deserves urgent attention.

More immediately, amending the sentencing guidelines for the offence of possession or downloading of illegal child porn (p.75-81,  which makes no specific reference to a low risk of contact offending) should also be considered. Where this can be shown from expert evidence (we routinely instruct an a  psycho-sexual expert in these cases) and is coupled with evidence that an offender has made efforts to address their behaviour, it should be recognised as an additional mitigating factor.

If rehabilitation is the primary objective, criminalising those men who do view this type of material but pose no appreciable risk of contact offending is not the answer.