The law regarding sexual offences

Part of: Victims of rape and sexual assault

Rape and sexual assault are crimes of violence. They can now be defined as any behaviour perceived to be of a sexual nature which is unwanted and takes place without consent or understanding.

The legal approach to sexual offences

The definition of rape has changed in recent years. Each definition is relevant depending on when the offence is alleged to have occurred.

Offences committed before 28 July 2003

Before 28 July 2003 rape was an offence under common law, the maximum sentence being life imprisonment. Under common law, the offence of rape could only be committed against a woman and related only to vaginal intercourse. It did not include non-consensual anal or oral sex.

Offences committed on or after 28 July 2003

Before 2 February 2009 rape continued to be an offence under common law as above. However the Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 2003 redefined rape as "any act of non-consensual intercourse by a man with a person". The victim can therefore be either male or female. Intercourse can be vaginal or anal. It does not include non-consensual oral sex.

Offences committed on or after 2 February 2009

The offence of rape is now defined by the Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008. It carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

The Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008

Definition of rape

A person commits the offence of rape where he intentionally penetrates the vagina, anus or mouth of another person with his penis, and that person does not consent to the penetration, and the defendant does not reasonably believe that person consents.

Definition of consent

A person consents if he or she agrees by choice, and has the freedom and capacity to make that choice. The essence of this definition is the agreement by choice. The law does not require the victim to have resisted physically.

Sexual violence and abuse

Rape and other sexual offences are abhorrent crimes which deeply affect the lives of victims and their families, and cause great concern within the community. The new law recognises the damage done by sexual offences, while protecting the right of adults to a private sex life.

The law covers any kind of intentional sexual touching of somebody else without their consent. It includes, touching any part of their body, clothed or unclothed, either with a part of the body or with an object.

The law makes it illegal to force a person to take part in any kind of sexual activity. For instance it would apply to a woman who forces a man to penetrate her against his will, or an abuser who makes their victim engage in masturbation.

Under the new law, it is now an offence for anyone to have any sexual activity with a young person under the age of 16. It doesn’t need to be full sexual intercourse - any activity of a sexual nature with someone under 16 is illegal.

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