What kind of experience does an accused person have?
Any case where an offence against children is alleged requires sensitivity and experience. The client has often never been in any type of trouble before, and the first experience of arrest and can be extremely traumatic.
How are these cases investigated?
The rise of the internet has done as much harm as it has good to the way that people communicate. Spending time on apps such as Kik or on special interest internet forums may be innocent enough, but conversation and behaviour can develop into something that wasn't initially intended.
Many inciting or grooming investigations begin as a result of involvement from an undercover police officer pretending to be a child in a chatroom or other social platform. The initial contact may progress to private sexual exchanges, or even a meeting, at the end of which an arrest will take place.
Other cases may arise as a result of a complaint from parents or social workers to the police, or as a result of a red flag from a compromised website.
Is entrapment a defence to a grooming case?
Specialist sexual offence lawyers often get asked about entrapment. This is where an undercover officer has appeared to encourage the behaviour which is being prosecuted. Unfortunately, the legal position in England and Wales is that entrapment is not a legal defence, and the court will generally only consider stopping proceedings in situations where the police have done things far beyond what a genuine person encouraging the criminal behaviour might have done. This often makes it difficult to challenge a prosecution which has started as a result of an undercover sting operation - these offences are usually charged as an 'attempt' as there is no real victim.
Grooming where victim and defendant are both young
These cases are incredibly sensitive and are never as straightforward as they seem. The line between being a groomer and a victim is often a fine one and one the prosecution and police will often draw in a judgmental way which completely ignores the subtle reality of a situation.
In cases where engaging in sexual communications, grooming, inciting, or meeting (including arranging to meet offences) are alleged, certain types of evidence are always important and the client will need the help of a specialist sexual offences lawyer to consider.
Texts and emails
Texts between a person accused of an offence and the complainant are generally always relevant. They may show meetings, inappropriate behaviour, and even appear to confirm the offences. However, the written word is almost always open to interpretation, and the client's version of what a particular text or email actually means should be considered carefully by his or her sexual offences lawyer.
Chatroom, video and social media conversations:
It is hard to overstate how important this evidence is. Often people who live rich social lives online have thousands of conversations recorded on their digital device without realising they are still there once the chat has finished. Most of them will be innocent but if there is any suggestion of criminality, even if it doesn't cross the line into actual criminality, the police will try to use it to strengthen their case.
The days of the family desktop are disappearing and people own a wide range of personal devices so while the issue of who access to a device is not as important as it was it is still something the client's specialist sexual offences lawyer will have to consider.
Gifts been given to young people, especially to young people in a local authority, is something the police are increasingly trained to interpret as a sign of grooming. A specialist sexual offences lawyer will need to ascertain whether gifts were given and whether they are significant. In grooming cases gifts can include things as basic as cigarettes, alcohol or small amounts of money, and can be the first stage in building an inappropriate relationship with a young person.
Arranging offences - Fantasy and Real Intent
The line between fantasy and reality is easily blurred in the internet age. There are more connections, with more people, on a more frequent basis, and the opportunity to discuss things in writing is greater than ever. Often the first job for a sexual offences lawyer to consider with the client is whether the 'arrangements' made online were fantasy or whether there are elements of the conversation which point to there having been the intent to 'meet'
The big question is if someone convicted of an offence with no real victim should be punished in the same way as if there was. The court's sentence offenders on the level of "harm" that would have been caused to a real victim, if whatever had been intended had been carried out. Once it is established that there is no real victim, the sentence is reduced.
Engaging in Sexual Communications with a Child
This relatively new offence is one that is increasingly popular with the police and courts as it is more simple to charge and to convict. Basically, someone only needs to send a text/WhatsApp/chat message to a person who claims to be a child, and that message to be sexual in nature. There is no sentencing guideline for the offence of attempting to engage in sexual communication with a child but it carries a maximum sentence of 2 years in prison which means any sentence handed down by a court could, and probably should, be suspended.
The Law on Grooming
Grooming itself is not an offence on its own. To be guilty, the person charged with the offence must be shown to have met or communicated with a child on at least two occasions, and then travelled with the intention of meeting them to commit sexual offences, typically sexual assault or rape.
The first two or more contacts don't need to be sexual in nature but the intention when travelling to meet must be for a sexual purpose. The meeting does not need to take place, travelling to it is enough. The child does not need to exist as long as the defendant thinks he or she does exist. This allows for the possibility of a police sting where the defendant is arrested at a meeting with (or on the way to) an undercover officer.
The law on causing or inciting a child to engage in sexual activity is split into two main offences. The first is an offence of inciting or encouraging a child to engage in sexual activity when the person doing it is over 18. For this offence, the prosecution must prove that the child/or person posing as a child was under 13, or that the child was under 16 and the adult did not reasonably believe that he or she was 16 or over. ‘Reasonably' means that a jury will have to make a decision about whether the mistake over the age was one that is plausible to them. If the child is under 13 the adult's view of the age is irrelevant.
The second type of offence of causing or inciting a child to engage in sexual activity is where the child is under 13, irrespective of the age of the defendant. This applies to offences committed by young people under 18, including by children under 16 and even under 13.
Specialist sexual offences lawyers will always want to understand the intentions of the client and the full context behind any offending behaviour. Often people accused of these offences have been victims, have suffered mental health issues, or have addictive behavioural issues. Understanding and recognising these issues is key to a successful defence case and it really can make the difference between going to prison or serving a sentence in the community.
Cases of grooming, arranging or facilitating a child sex offence are ones that pass the custody threshold and the question is whether a sentence of imprisonment can be suspended. Where a person has actually gone to meet the child following the initial contact avoiding prison becomes harder. In cases where the offence is simply communicating with a child in a sexual way then prison can usually be avoided if the specialist sexual offences lawyer understands the client's background and the context in which the offences happened.