Policing and justice report

Sexual offences and trafficking legislation a ‘major milestone’

Changes to sexual offences laws introduced in November 2023 that create offences of upskirting, downblousing, and cyber flashing mark the final stage of the implementation of the Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2022.

The changes to the law represent a major attempt to get to grips with sexual offences in the modern digital age by including the introduction of four new offences “to capture the specific and highly intrusive behaviours of, what is commonly known as, ‘up-skirting’ and ‘down-blousing’”, defined as “observing or recording of a person’s genitals, buttocks, breasts, or underwear without a person’s consent”.

The legislation also creates a new offence of ‘cyber flashing’, identified as capturing the behaviour of people who “intentionally send an image of their genitals or sexual activity to another person without that person’s consent”. Four new offences have also been created to tackle adults pretending to be children in order to communicate with children under the age of consent with a view to sexual grooming.

Outside of the digital and communications realm, the legislation also extends “the scope of the established abuse of position of trust offences to capture those adults in a position of trust who knowingly coach, teach, train, supervise, or instruct a child on a regular basis in the area of sport, or religion” and amends “the existing offence of disclosing a private sexual photograph and film with intent to cause distress to bring the behaviour of threatening to disclose a private sexual photograph and film with intent to cause distress within its scope”.

The Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2022 received royal assent in April 2022, with its provisions implemented in three key stages. The above implementations introduced in November 2023 mark the third and final stage of the Act’s implementation.

Department of Justice Permanent Secretary Richard Pengelly said that the implementation of the final tranche of provisions was a “major milestone”. Pengelly said: “The creation of new offences and the bolstering of existing offences makes it clear that these behaviours are totally unacceptable, and it sends an important message that they will not be tolerated in our society.

“Those who would carry out these behaviours should be aware that there are serious consequences to their actions, with a maximum penalty of two years’ imprisonment applying to the offences, as well as the potential to be placed on the sex offender register.”

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