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IICSA published its final Report in October 2022. This website was last updated in January 2023.

IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

The Report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Final report

G.2: The criminal justice system

6. The overriding objective of the criminal justice system is to deal with cases “justly”.[1] This includes “acquitting the innocent and convicting the guilty”, “respecting the interests of witnesses, victims and jurors and keeping them informed of the progress of the case” and “dealing with the case efficiently and expeditiously”.[2] Achieving a ‘just’ outcome therefore requires a thorough and impartial police investigation, a timely and accurate decision about whether to charge the suspect and a fair trial commenced and conducted within a reasonable time.

7. As noted in Part B, child sexual abuse is under-reported. A large number of the Inquiry’s investigation reports noted that the true scale of offending was likely to be far higher than the available data appeared to suggest.[3] The 2018/19 Crime Survey for England and Wales estimated that 76 percent of adults who experienced rape or assault by penetration did not tell anyone about their experience at the time.[4] The government’s Tackling Child Sexual Abuse Strategy (2021) noted that:

People were even less likely to tell the policeonly an estimated 7% of victims and survivors informed the police at the time of the offence and only 18% told the police at any point.[5]

8. The Inquiry expects that, as a result of a number of its recommendations, victims and survivors will feel more confident that a report of child sexual abuse will be treated with the utmost professionalism and sensitivity. Nevertheless, not every allegation of child sexual abuse will enter the criminal justice system. Fewer still result in a conviction (Figure G.1).

A bar chart with five series with data from multiple sources showing estimated number of victims of child sexual abuse in 12 months to 31 March 2021, number of police recorded child sexual abuse offences in the 12 months to 30 September 2021, number of suspects charged for child sexual abuse offences in the 12 months to 30 September 2021, number of offenders prosecuted against for child sexual abuse offences in 12 months to December 2020 and number of offenders convicted for child sexual abuse offences in the 12 months to December 2020.Figure G.1: Child sexual abuse outcomes through the criminal justice system

Source: See data compendium to this report

Long Description

Child sexual abuse outcomes through the criminal justice system

Estimated number of victims of child sexual abuse 2020/21:
Police recorded crime - child sexual abuse offences of which:
Rape: 17,227
Obscene publication and Incest/familial sexual offences: 3,598
Suspects charged:
Offenders prosecuted:
Offenders convicted:

Disruptive measures taken by law enforcement

9. It is unrealistic to expect that law enforcement will be able to prevent all offences of child sexual abuse from being perpetrated. However, there are steps that can be taken to make child sexual abuse as difficult as possible to commit, and in doing so reduce the risk of harm to children. The Inquiry’s investigation reports The Internet and Children Outside the United Kingdom consider some of the ways in which law enforcement aims to prevent child sexual abuse.[6]

10. One of the methods used by law enforcement to deter, disrupt and prevent suspected child sexual exploitation and abuse is through the use of police warning notices and court orders.

11. Child abduction warning notices (CAWNs) may be issued by the police (without a court order) against a potential offender. A CAWN informs the individual that they are not permitted to associate with a named child and that, if they continue to do so, they may be arrested. Originally used in cases of child abduction, CAWNs are now also used in cases of suspected grooming or child sexual exploitation to make it more difficult for the offender to meet with the child.

12. The Home Office’s 2022 Child Exploitation Disruption Toolkit (applicable to both criminal and sexual exploitation of children) provides guidance on when and how CAWNs can be used.[7] The six case study areas examined in the Inquiry’s Child Sexual Exploitation by Organised Networks investigation demonstrated that CAWNs were used with varying frequency and were generally considered to be underused.[8] There was also evidence that some police forces did not adequately record the use of CAWNs, which made it difficult for officers to identify when CAWNs had been issued.[9]

13. These findings echo responses to a survey by the Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse in December 2021, which looked at the ways in which police forces across England and Wales seek to disrupt child sexual abuse.[10] A number of frontline respondents stated that they did not know where information about issued notices (and court orders, discussed below) was recorded. There was also a “wide divergence of opinion” about who was responsible for monitoring adherence to orders and notices, with some respondents “expressing concern that issued orders were not always monitored”.[11]

14. In addition to CAWNs, there are two main legislative orders that may be imposed by a court to help prevent child sexual abuse and exploitation. Before either is made, a court must be satisfied that the order is “necessary” to protect the public from sexual harm.

14.1. A sexual harm prevention order (SHPO) may be made after a person has been convicted of a sexual offence, such as rape, sexual assault or possession of indecent images of children.[12]

14.2. A sexual risk order (SRO) may be made where there has been no conviction but the court “is satisfied” that the individual has “done an act of a sexual nature as a result of which it is necessary to make such an order”.[13]

15. SHPOs and SROs can include a range of restrictions to protect members of the public from sexual harm, including prohibiting offenders from contact with children and placing restrictions on foreign travel, including prohibiting travel to certain countries. Breach of the order without reasonable excuse is a criminal offence and carries a maximum prison sentence of up to five years.

16. In recent years, the number of SHPOs has been steadily decreasing, from 5,931 in 2016/17 to 4,325 in 2020/21. As the 2021 Centre for Social Justice report, Unsafe Children, commented:

It is unclear whether this is because the number of people eligible for SHPOs has simply reached a plateau, officials are not seeking SHPOs in cases where they should be or whether courts are becoming more reticent about granting them … the number of offenders being sent to custody for breach of SHPOs has continued to decrease.”[14]

17. The government’s Tackling Child Sexual Abuse Strategy states that, in relation to SROs and SHPOs, it will “continue to promote best practice … and look to strengthen these civil orders in a number of ways”. This includes allowing the British Transport Police and the Ministry of Defence Police to also apply for these orders.[15] The strategy states that the government wants to “maximise the effectiveness” of CAWNs, SHPOs and SROs, but it contains no detail about how this is to be done in respect of CAWNs.[16]

18. For the use of court orders and police notices to be effective, the police need to be able to access this information easily and the terms of the notice or order need to be monitored. There also needs to be better evidence about the extent to which these notices and orders are being issued. The issue of a warning notice entitled ‘child abduction’ is potentially misleading given that many potential offenders have not abducted a child. It may also be the case that, for young adults in particular, the wording of the notice provides insufficient warning that the behaviour they are engaged in potentially amounts to a sexual crime. While the Inquiry acknowledges law enforcement’s duty to investigate potential crime (and not deal with the matter by way of a warning notice), more explicit references in the notice to potential child sexual abuse and exploitation offences being committed may well assist to disrupt such behaviour and deter an individual from engaging in that conduct in future. Thought might therefore be given to a more tailored warning notice. The government needs to ensure that these matters are addressed as part of its ongoing work in this area and, in particular, in its inspection of the police response to child sexual exploitation.[17]

Investigative failures

19. The Inquiry’s work identified a number of failures by police forces responsible for investigating allegations of child sexual abuse.[18] These included failures to fully investigate reports of child sexual abuse based on assumptions about the credibility of the complainant.[19] Allegations made by a child, particularly from a child in care, were often considered as being less worthy of belief, which influenced officers’ approach to the case and led to a less than thorough investigation.[20] Some of these failures occurred at a time when the police did not have dedicated units to investigate sexual offences (including those committed against children) and officers were not specifically trained to investigate these offences.[21] However, the Inquiry heard concerns about the quality of more recent investigations into allegations of child sexual exploitation.[22]

A variable response

20. More recently, children and young people from whom the Inquiry heard described mixed experiences of dealing with the police (and criminal justice agencies). Their experiences were often affected by the knowledge, skills and attitude of the individual officers involved.[23] Some victims and survivors spoke of improved policing with more specialist trained officers which resulted in improvements, for example, in the way the police officers spoke about child sexual abuse, in the sensitivity from officers and, importantly, in how victims and survivors were treated.[24] Another spoke positively about how the officer spent time with him considering his options and signposted him to relevant support services.[25] Evidence from some of the Inquiry’s investigations also reflected positively on the way the police conducted their inquiries.[26]

21. To support police officers working in this area and raise the profile and priority of child sexual abuse within individual forces, in the April 2018 Interim Report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (the Interim Report), the Inquiry recommended that any police officer (or staff equivalent) who wanted to progress to a senior leadership role must first have operational policing experience in preventing and responding to child sexual abuse. Changes to legislation under the Police Regulations 2003 and to the College of Policing’s training and accreditation arrangements were also recommended.[27] In response, the government indicated that a programme of non-legislative changes had been drawn up to ensure an understanding of safeguarding and vulnerability across all levels of leadership in policing. The response went on to note that the Home Office had not identified any need for legislative change but that it would keep this under review.[28] The Inquiry remains concerned, however, that such programmes are too generic. They do not reinforce the need to prioritise child sexual abuse at leadership level, in terms of both understanding the problem and an ability to respond. This is necessary, in turn, to support and encourage good practice in frontline officers who work in this difficult and sensitive area of crime.

Delay during the investigation process

22. Investigative delays are not uncommon in cases of child sexual abuse, particularly those involving online-facilitated child sexual abuse.

23. Investigations often require the interrogation of electronic equipment and analysis of communications between the perpetrator and the child. Many perpetrators possess multiple devices. HMICFRS’s 2021 progress report in respect of the Metropolitan Police Service found, across all offences (not just cases of child sexual abuse), “significant delays in forensic examinations” of devices submitted for analysis, with a waiting time of six to nine months and a backlog of 1,277 submissions.[29] In June 2021, the government allocated £5 million to a national fund “to accelerate growth in the capacity of police forces to acquire and manage evidence from digital devices”.[30]

24. Where the content of messages cannot be obtained from a device (for example because the phone is PIN protected and cannot be unlocked) there can be further delays, as most communication service providers are based overseas and there is a lengthy legal process to be followed to request and obtain such data.[31] The average time for UK law enforcement to obtain information from overseas companies was over a year.[32]

25. In October 2019, the Home Secretary signed a UK–US bilateral data access agreement allowing UK law enforcement to request data directly from US-based communications service providers. The Inquiry was told that it was envisaged that the new agreement meant that data could be accessed in weeks, if not days.[33] However, when the Inquiry requested an update in March 2022, it was told that neither country had made any requests pursuant to the agreement because the agreement was not yet in force. The Home Office explained that “The reason it is not yet operational is because the parties have not yet exchanged diplomatic notes indicating that each country has taken the necessary steps to bring the Agreement into force”. The Home Office stated that negotiations were “ongoing” and that while bringing the agreement into force was a “top priority for both governments”, it could not give a timeframe by which this would happen.[34] Given the anticipated benefits of the data access agreement, it is regrettable that the agreement is not yet in force.

Crown Prosecution Service decision-making

26. The police refer child sexual abuse allegations to the Crown Prosecution Service for its advice on additional lines of enquiry that might be necessary. Once any additional enquiries have been completed, the Crown Prosecution Service decides whether there is sufficient evidence to charge a suspect. A prosecutor must be satisfied that there is enough evidence to provide a “realistic prospect of conviction” (the evidential test) and that it is in the public interest to bring a prosecution (the public interest test).[35]

27. Some of the cases examined by the Inquiry identified procedural and legal errors in the Crown Prosecution Service decision-making process.[36] Delays in making those decisions also featured.[37] In one case, the charging decision took 14 months, causing one complainant to withdraw, citing the “enormous strain” that was being placed on him.[38]

28. The clandestine nature of grooming and child sexual abuse means that there are often no witnesses or other supporting evidence. In non-recent child sexual abuse cases, the passage of time between the sexual abuse and the investigation also means these cases generally do not involve evidence such as CCTV, forensics or phone and social media evidence.[39] Where the allegation predominantly relies on the account of the complainant, this can sometimes create difficulties in meeting the evidential test for bringing a prosecution. It is therefore very important that steps are taken to gather evidence of the surrounding circumstances, taking into account the difficulties experienced by victims in disclosing. For example, in the Inquiry’s investigation into institutional responses to allegations of child sexual abuse involving the late Lord Janner of Braunstone QC, 34 complainant core participants made allegations against Lord Janner.[40] However, not all allegations involving Lord Janner met the evidential test. At the time of his death in December 2015, Lord Janner was awaiting trial in respect of nine complainants and the prosecution was seeking to add three additional complainants to the trial.[41]

29. A number of the Inquiry’s investigations examined non-recent allegations of child sexual abuse which did not result in criminal proceedings.[42] Until changes to corroboration rules in 1988 and 1995 (corroboration was evidence which had to be admissible, independent of the complainant, and support the allegation that the crime had been committed and that it had been committed by the defendant), prosecuting child sexual abuse cases was extremely difficult, as very few acts of child sexual abuse were likely to be corroborated.[43]

30. The structure of the Crown Prosecution Service now includes specialist teams of lawyers to advise on cases involving rape and serious sexual offences and child sexual abuse. Revisions to the Crown Prosecution Service’s Code for Crown Prosecutors and the accompanying guidance (in particular the Guidelines on Prosecuting Cases of Child Sexual Abuse) specifically address the particular evidential challenges faced when making charging decisions and focus prosecutors’ attention on case-building to support a complainant’s account wherever possible.[44] However evidentially difficult a case may be, that should not deter prosecutors from charging a suspect where the test is met.

31. Notwithstanding a number of changes to both criminal law and practice, problems still exist in the criminal justice system and its handling of child sexual abuse cases. In particular, delays within the system and ensuring that victims, survivors and complainants are able to give their best evidence and are supported throughout the process remain specific causes for concern to witnesses and their families.

Criminal trials

32. The total numbers of prosecutions and convictions for child sexual abuse offences have fallen by around 25 percent, from a high in 2016 when 9,305 defendants were prosecuted resulting in 6,763 guilty convictions, to 6,943 prosecutions and 4,649 guilty convictions in 2020 (Figure G.2). It should be noted, however, that these data do not record all child sexual offences as they are based only on offences involving penetrative and non-penetrative sexual assaults on children under the age of 13.

A two-series column chart showing, data from the Ministry of Justice, the number of defendants prosecuted and convicted for child sexual abuse offences from 2016 to 2020.Figure G.2: Number of defendants prosecuted and convicted for child sexual abuse offences, from 2016 to 2020
Source: Ministry of Justice, Criminal Justice Statistics Quarterly, year to December 2020 Prosecutions and conviction data tool (note: offences are those identifiable by the offence code) MOJ000948_001-002

Long Description
Number of defendants prosecuted and convicted for child sexual abuse offences from 2016 to 2020
2016 2017 2018 2019 2020
Proceeded against 9,305 8,806 6,063 6,387 6,943
Found guilty 6,763 6,517 5,048 4,870 4,649

33. The decline in prosecutions and convictions for child sexual abuse offences is seemingly indicative of a broader decline in the number of prosecutions for offences of rape. In June 2021, the government published the End-to-End Rape Review Report on Findings and Actions (the Rape Review report). The Rape Review report focussed on adult rapes where the victim was aged 16 or over and therefore includes cases involving children aged 16–18. The report stated that “many of the findings will be relevant to sexual offence cases more widely”.[45] It noted that “only 3% of adult rape offences assigned a police outcome in 2019/20 were given an outcome of charged/summonsed”.[46]

34. The Rape Review report identified a number of factors contributing to the decline in cases reaching a court, including “delays in investigative processes, strained relationships between different parts of the criminal justice system, a lack of specialist resources and inconsistent support to victims”.[47] It also noted that a greater proportion of victims who reported rape and sexual assault now choose to disengage from the criminal justice process than in 2015, with the most significant proportion doing so before a charging decision is made.[48] The reason for this may be linked to concerns of victims and survivors that they will not be supported throughout the process and an overriding worry about the length of time taken to investigate and prosecute the case.

Delays in prosecuting cases

35. In addition to delays at the investigative and charging stage, for the year ending 31 December 2021, Ministry of Justice data indicate that it took an average of 252 days for a child sexual abuse case at the Crown Court to be completed.[49] The need to support victims and complainants throughout what can often be a long and arduous process is obvious. Accounts from victims and survivors attesting to the frustration, distress and harm caused by such delays featured prominently across the Inquiry’s work.

35.1. Support workers for children and young people said that it took up to two years for some cases to come to court.[50]

35.2. Members of the Victims and Survivors Forum said it was not uncommon to wait up to three years before the case went to trial. These delays had a “profound impact” on the victims and survivors’ well-being.[51]

35.3. Similar views were expressed at the Inquiry’s seminar on the criminal justice system in November 2017, where one participant told the Inquiry about an almost four-year gap between reporting child sexual abuse and the criminal trial. The delay was due to a lack of video-interview appointments and a lengthy investigation, during which they were required to provide multiple statements. Another participant described a two-year gap between reporting and trial, followed by an adjournment of nearly 10 months on the first day of the trial because of timetabling problems. The participant had not been warned that the process could take that long.[52] There was particular concern that younger victims and survivors may want to withdraw from a criminal case when it stretches over a very long period.[53]

35.4. Participants in the Truth Project described the period between reporting to the police and the conclusion of the case as “lengthy, frustrating and emotional”, with one participant left feeling suicidal at points because of how stressful the process was.[54]

36. The emotional strain that delay places on victims and survivors cannot be underestimated. In addition, the practical implications where a victim or complainant withdraws from the process mean that a prosecution may simply not be possible, with the result that no determination as to guilt or innocence can be made. It is unjust that delays lead some individuals to withdraw their allegations.

Withdrawal of support for a case and ‘false allegations’

37. Central to any criminal investigation is the need to ensure that allegations are properly investigated. To do otherwise jeopardises any potential prosecution. It risks unfairness to the complainant as well as to the accused, both of whom rely on the State to investigate the allegation fully and impartially. Investigations into child sexual abuse should not be driven by the investigator’s view about whether the complainant is worthy of belief, or any subjective view about the veracity of the complaint. All allegations need to be taken seriously and dealt with professionally. Children cannot be protected from child sexual abuse if those to whom complaints are made disregard what they are being told and fail to investigate the allegation. Nor can justice be done if the presumption of innocence is not maintained.

38. The fact that the evidential test to bring a prosecution is not met does not mean that the complaint is false. Equally, the fact that a complainant withdraws their support for an investigation or prosecution does not mean that the complaint is false. As examined above, the protracted nature of criminal investigations and proceedings along with a lack of appropriate support are some of the reasons why an individual may withdraw.

39. The 2019 prosecution of Carl Beech for offences of perverting the course of public justice arising out of false allegations of child sexual abuse highlighted the question of false allegations. It is important to note that research shows that false allegations of child sexual abuse are rare.[55] While false allegations of child sexual abuse are uncommon, the stigma surrounding the sexual abuse of children means these allegations can have a devastating effect on the accused individual. False allegations also have a negative impact on genuine victims and survivors, tarnishing them as potential purveyors of untruths.

Reducing delay

40. The Young Witness Initiative is one of the measures now available to try and minimise the effect of delay on victims and complainants. It aims to fast-track cases involving a witness who is under the age of 10 by expediting the working arrangements between the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the court in order to give a child witness the best chance of remembering the incident and to make the criminal justice process less stressful for them.[56]

41. It is unclear whether these measures will reduce or mitigate the effect of delay on victims and complainants. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the backlog of criminal cases (not just those involving allegations of child sexual abuse) waiting to be tried by the criminal courts and has clearly played a part in increasing the amount of time spent by victims and complainants waiting for their case to come to trial. At the end of December 2021, there were 58,818 outstanding cases at the Crown Court.[57] However, it would be wrong to attribute the entirety of these delays to the pandemic, as there was already a pre-pandemic Crown Court case backlog of 37,434 cases as at the end of December 2019, resulting from cuts to budgets for the criminal justice system.[58]

42. The Tackling Child Sexual Abuse Strategy acknowledges “the importance of swift case progression for victims’ and survivors’ wellbeing”, and states that the government will work with the Crown Prosecution Service, National Crime Agency (NCA) and the police “to better understand case progression for child sexual abuse cases in the criminal justice system and opportunities for improvement”.[59] However, the strategy lacks any specific plan as to how delay is going to be minimised and the backlog of cases is such that victims and complainants are still likely to face intolerable delay and further harm.

43. The current crisis in the criminal justice system has persisted for years. Many of the Inquiry’s concerns are acknowledged in the government’s Tackling Child Sexual Abuse Strategy and the Rape Review report. It remains to be seen whether implementation of the proposals within those reports will improve the criminal justice system’s response to victims and survivors. However, this Inquiry’s work has laid bare past and present failures by the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts. The problems identified in this Part are widespread throughout the criminal justice system as a whole. The Inquiry has witnessed first-hand the damage and additional harm caused to victims and survivors.


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