There are a range of crimes that can be considered sexual offences such as rape, other forms of sexual assault, child sexual abuse or grooming, and crimes that exploit others for a sexual purpose, whether in person or online.
You can read more information about the different types of sexual offences by clicking the link.
It is widely recognised that there are significant challenges in prosecuting cases involving sexual offences. To address these challenges, the PPS established the Serious Crime Unit in 2016 which comprises a dedicated team of specialist prosecutors. They have worked closely with partner agencies and victim representative groups to develop best practice in building cases, supporting victims and ensure that prosecutions are brought robustly, but fairly.
When there is a complaint of a sexual offence it will be investigated by police. Police will then submit a file to the PPS containing the evidence that they have obtained so that the PPS can take a decision whether to prosecute.
A prosecutor will carefully consider the evidence and decide whether that evidence is sufficient to provide a reasonable prospect of conviction and, if it is, whether prosecution is in the public interest. This is known as the Test for Prosecution and you can read more about how prosecutors reach decisions on the How We Reach Decisions page. In some cases the prosecutor will wish to consult with the victim prior to taking a decision.
In many instances sexual offences take place in private or in circumstances where the victim is the only person who can provide direct evidence of what took place. During their investigation police will look for supporting evidence, particularly medical or forensic evidence. Where supporting evidence exists it will often be helpful and make it more likely that a prosecution can be brought. However, there will also be cases where it is possible to bring a prosecution on the basis of the victim’s evidence alone.
In cases received by the PPS there is often a substantial period of time between the date of the alleged offence and the date of the first complaint. This can often arise in cases of child abuse where it is not until many years have elapsed that the victim has the necessary confidence to report the abuse. The significant passage of time does not prevent the effective prosecution of sexual offences and charges under the legislation in force at the relevant time can be brought.
How does the PPS support victims and witnesses of sexual offences?
The PPS is aware of the huge impact a sexual offence can have on victims and is committed to ensuring that the interests of victims are considered at every stage of the process. This commitment is set out in detail in the PPS 'Victims and Witness policy' which you can read by clicking the link.
Giving evidence can be a particularly traumatic experience for victims of sexual offences. Special measures can be applied for and put in place during court proceedings to make the experience less traumatic. Examples of special measures include:
- Giving evidence by a pre-recorded video interview.
- A live video link to enable the witness to give evidence from a separate room.
- Giving evidence in private, with the court cleared of the public
A victim of sexual offences is automatically presumed to be eligible to apply for the assistance of special measures unless the court is informed that he or she does not require this. The judge makes the decision about whether special measures will be allowed. The court will only allow a special measure where it considers that the measure would be likely to improve the quality of evidence given by the victim/witness.
You can read more about special measures, and services for vulnerable or intimated witnesses, by clicking the link.
Victim and Witness Care Units
The PPS, in joint working with the PSNI, has established a dedicated Victim and Witness Care Unit (VWCU). Its primary role is to keep victims and witnesses of crime fully informed of the progress of their case after it has been received by the PPS. You can read more about the VWCU by clicking the link.
The VWCU can also make referrals to other service providers if additional support is required. You can read more about the trial process and how victims and witnesses are supported in the Victim and Witness Information section.
Dealing with the case at court
The PPS is committed to ensuring prosecutors have the right skills to prosecute sexual offences cases effectively, including the ability to deal sensitively with victims and witnesses.
If a prosecution is brought and the accused pleads not guilty, the prosecutor will speak with the victim before the trial. Depending on the nature of the evidence to be given this may be on the day of the trial, or on an earlier date. The purpose of such a meeting is to introduce the victim to the prosecutor and help the victim understand the trial process. While the prosecutor may wish to clarify some issues with the victim, it is not appropriate for them to discuss the evidence.
In most trials for sexual offences where the defendant pleads not guilty, the defendant’s legal representatives will challenge the victim’s account of the allegations.
This is normal and permissible. However, there are rules about inappropriate cross-examination and particularly the questioning of a victim about his or her previous sexual behaviour. Such questioning can only take place with the permission of the judge.
The prosecutor will object to such questioning where it is considered inappropriate. The prosecutor will also object to any other questions about the character or conduct of the victim which are irrelevant to the issues in the case.
For there to be a conviction in the criminal court, the prosecution has to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This is a very high standard of proof and there are many reasons why a jury may ultimately acquit an accused. An acquittal is required if the jury is not sure of the guilt of the defendant and does not mean that the victim has been untruthful.
Reasons for decision not to prosecute
In the event of a decision not to prosecute, you will be informed in writing and will be provided with the reasons for the decision. You will also be offered the opportunity to meet with the prosecutor and have the decision explained to you in person.
Review of Decisions
A victim may request a review of a decision not to prosecute. The Code for Prosecutors sets out the PPS policy in relation to the review of decisions. Where such a request is made, and there is no new evidence, the case will be examined by a different prosecutor than the one who took the no prosecution decision. If new evidence is submitted with the request for a review it will first be considered by the prosecutor who took the original decision not to prosecute. However, if that prosecutor decides that the no prosecution decision should stand, the case will then be considered by a different prosecutor who will apply the Test for Prosecution afresh and reach their own independent decision whether to prosecute.
Consent is a fundamental issue in rape and sexual assault cases because the prosecution is required to prove to the court that the victim did not consent and that the suspect did not have a reasonable belief that the victim was consenting.
Consent is defined in section 3 of the Sexual offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008. 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. Consent to sexual activity may be given to one sort of activity but not another. Consent can be withdrawn at any time during sexual activity.
The defendant must show that his belief in consent was reasonable. In deciding whether the belief of the defendant was reasonable, a jury must have regard to all the circumstances, including any steps he has taken to ascertain whether the victim has consented. In certain circumstances, it is presumed that the victim did not consent to sexual activity and the defendant did not reasonably believe that the victim consented, unless he can show otherwise. Examples of circumstances where the presumption applies are where the victim was unconscious, drugged, abducted or subject to threats or fear of serious harm.
When it comes to other offences, such as assaults committed against children, there is no requirement for the prosecution to prove an absence of consent. Where the victim is under the age of 13 it is only necessary to prove that the act itself took place and the age of the alleged victim. If the victim is between 13 and 16 then the prosecution must also prove that the defendant did not reasonably believe that the victim was over 16.