Legislation and guidance on child sexual abuse
Statutory guidance across the UK highlights the responsibility of those in the education, community and care sectors to safeguard children from all forms of abuse and neglect.
The key legislation relating to child sexual abuse in England and Wales is the Sexual Offences Act 2003.
In Northern Ireland it is the Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008.
In Scotland it is the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009 and the Protection of Children and Prevention of Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2005.
Age of consent
The age of consent (the legal age when people can have sex) in the UK is 16 years old. The law is there to protect children from abuse or exploitation. It is not designed to unnecessarily criminalise children.
Sexual activity involving a child under the age of 16 should be considered a potential safeguarding concern. Professionals who are aware of sexual activity involving a child aged under 16, should follow their organisational, local, and national procedures when deciding whether to make a safeguarding referral. Sexual activity involving a child under the age of 13 should always result in a child protection referral.
Protecting children from sexual abuse
In all countries of the UK it is illegal to:
- have sexual activity with a child aged under 16
- cause or incite a child aged under 16 to engage in sexual activity
- engage in sexual activity in the presence of a child aged under 16
- cause a child aged under 16 to watch a sexual act
- arrange or facilitate a child sex offence
- have sexual activity with a child family member aged under 18
- sexually exploit a child aged under 18 (including paying for or arranging sexual services of a child).
> Find out more about child sexual exploitation
Across the UK, it is a criminal offence to meet, or arrange to meet, a child following sexual grooming.
In England, Northern Ireland and Wales, the offence applies to anyone over 18 who grooms anyone under 16.
In Scotland, the offence applies to anyone who grooms a child under 13, and anyone over 16 who grooms a child aged 13-15.
> Learn more about grooming
Indecent images of children
Across the UK it is illegal to take, make or have indecent photographs of children aged under 18.
> Find out more about the legislation on sharing indecent images of children
Sexual communication with a child
In England and Wales, part 67 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 makes it a criminal offence for an adult to engage in sexual communication with a child aged under 16. This includes communication that relates to sexual activity and communication for the purpose of obtaining sexual gratification (for example, grooming for sexual abuse).
In Northern Ireland, it is illegal for an adult to have sexual communication with a child aged under 16, under section 90 of the Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 2015.
In Scotland, section 24 of the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009 makes it illegal for anyone of any age to have sexual communication with a child aged under 13. Section 34 of the Act makes it illegal for anyone aged over 16 to have sexual communication with a child aged 13-15.
Positions of trust
It is illegal for a person in a position of trust (for example teachers or care workers) to engage in sexual activity with anyone under the age of 18 who is in the care of their organisation – even if they are over 16.
> Find out more about the legislation on abuse in positions of trust
Prosecuting and monitoring sex offenders
Each nation has a legislative framework to protect children from adults who may pose a risk of sexual harm and to deal with adults who have sexually offended against children.
The Home Office provides guidance on the Sexual Offences Act 2003 (Home Office, 2004). Part 1 explains the different sexual offences and their maximum penalties. Part 2 provides guidance for police and practitioners on the notification requirements for registered sex offenders, Sexual Harm Prevention Orders (SHPOs) and Sexual Risk Orders (SROs) (Home Office, 2018).
In England and Wales, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) provides guidelines on prosecuting cases of child sexual abuse (CPS, 2020).
In Northern Ireland, the Department of Justice provides guidance for the police (PDF) on the notification requirements which apply to sex offenders (Department of Justice, 2014).
Police Scotland provides guidance on the Sex offender notification requirements (Police Scotland, 2018).
Child sex offender disclosure schemes
Under the Child sex offender disclosure scheme (sometimes known as “Sarah’s Law”), anyone in England and Wales can formally ask the police if someone with access to a child has a record for child sexual offences. Police will reveal details confidentially to the person most able to protect the child (usually parents, carers or guardians) if they think it’s in the child’s interests. The child sex offender disclosure scheme guidance is available from the Home Office (Home Office, 2023).
In Northern Ireland the Child protection disclosure arrangements allow members of the public to ask the police for information about a person’s history of sexual and violent criminal offences. The police will only disclose this information if it’s deemed that the person presents a risk to the child. And they will only disclose the information to the person who has responsibility for the child and/or is best placed to safeguard the child (such as a parent or carer) (Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), 2021).
In Scotland, the Sex offender community disclosure scheme allows parents, carers and guardians of children under 18 years old to ask the police if someone who has contact with their child has a record for sexual offences against children, or other offences that could put that child at risk (Police Scotland, 2021).
Risk assessment and information sharing
In England and Wales, Part 13 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 sets out arrangements for assessing risks posed by sexual or violent offenders, which led to the establishment of Multi agency public protection arrangements (MAPPA). The MAPPA guidance sets out the responsibilities of the police, probation trusts and prison service to ensure the successful management of violent and sexual offenders (Ministry of Justice, National Offender Management Service and Her Majesty's Prison Service, 2021).
In Northern Ireland, the Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 2008 places a legal requirement on agencies to cooperate and share information to better assess and manage risk posed by sexual or violent offenders. This order led to the establishment of Public protection arrangements (PPANI) (PPANI, 2016) – a non-statutory body designed to help agencies undertake their statutory duties and coordinate their functions to enhance public protection from sexual and violent offenders when they are released from prison into the community.
> Find out more about the PPANI Manual of practice (PDF)
In Scotland, the Management of Offenders etc. (Scotland) Act 2005 sets out arrangements for assessing risks posed by sexual or violent offenders. This led to the establishment of Multi agency public protection arrangements (MAPPA), which sets out the responsibilities of the police, probation trusts and prison service to ensure the successful management of violent and sexual offenders (Scottish Government, 2021b).
Preventing unsuitable adults from working with children
In England and Wales, the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 provides the framework for the vetting and barring of people seeking to work with children and vulnerable adults.
In Northern Ireland, the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups (Northern Ireland) Order 2007 makes provision for checking persons seeking to work with children or vulnerable adults and for barring those considered to be unsuitable for such posts.
In Scotland, the Protection of Children (Scotland) Act 2003 sets out measures to prevent unsuitable adults from working with children, while the Protection of Vulnerable Groups (Scotland) Act 2007 introduced the offence of employing a barred person in regulated activity.
Children who are convicted of sex offences
Sometimes children may carry out sexual abuse towards someone else. Each nation has guidance about how professionals should respond to this.
> Find out more about the guidance on harmful sexual behaviour
Guidance on medical examinations of children who have been sexually abused
In all four UK nations there is guidance to support practitioners who are carrying out medical examinations of children and young people who have or are thought to have experienced sexual abuse.
The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) has published a Service specification for the clinical evaluation of children and young people who may have been sexually abused. This provides guidance on good practice when carrying out forensic medical examinations on children (RCPCH, 2015).
The Faculty of Forensic and Legal Medicine of the Royal College of Physicians (FFLM) has published interim guidance on Child sexual abuse forensic medical examinations. This provides information on the knowledge, skills and attitudes required from medical professionals who undertake the role of examining and caring for children who have or may have experienced sexual abuse (FFLM, 2021).
The Centre of expertise on child sexual abuse (CSA centre) has published an evidence-informed film to help professionals from multi-agency backgrounds understand the role and purpose of a medical examination in situations where child sexual abuse has been disclosed or suspected.
In England and Wales, the Forensic Science Regulator has published guidance on requirements for the assessment, collection and recording of forensic science related evidence during sexual assault examinations (Forensic Science Regulator, 2020). This provides guidance on explaining to a child what will happen during the examination.
Other policy and guidance
In England and Wales, the Home Office has published the Tackling child sexual abuse strategy. The strategy’s three main objectives are to:
- tackle all forms of child abuse and bring perpetrators to justice
- prevent offending and re-offending
- protect and safeguard children and young people and support all victims.
It applies to abuse that takes place online and offline.
The aspects of the strategy that relate to policing and justice apply to both England and Wales. The aspects that relate to health, social care and education apply only to England.
(Home Office, 2021a).
The Home Office has also published a strategy on tackling violence against women and girls (Home Office, 2021b). The elements of the Strategy which relate to crime, policing and justice apply to England and Wales. The elements relating to health, social care, and education apply to England only.
The Mayor's Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC) in London has produced Child house in a box, an interactive toolkit to provide information and advice for those interested in setting up a Child house child sexual abuse service (MOPAC, 2021).
In Northern Ireland, the government has set out its approach to preventing sexual abuse in Stopping domestic and sexual violence and abuse in Northern Ireland: a seven year strategy (PDF) (Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) and Department of Justice, 2016).
The strategy has five strands.
- Driving change through co-operation and leadership.
- Prevention and early intervention.
- Delivering change through responsive services.
- Support for victims of domestic and/or sexual violence and abuse.
- Protection and justice.
The Department of Justice has published the Gillen Review Implementation Plan, which will sets out how the government plans to implement recommendations from the 2019 Gillen Report into review of the law and procedures in serious sexual offences in Northern Ireland. Strategic priority areas for development include support for child victims, including the Child House “Barnhaus” model.
In Scotland, the Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm (Scotland) Act 2016 aims to improve the justice system’s response to abusive behaviour and sexual harm. Under the Act, judges must give special information to guide juries in certain sexual offence trials, to challenge any preconceptions jurors may have about how sexual assaults take place.
Sexual offences committed elsewhere in the UK can now be prosecuted in Scottish courts. It also makes it an offence to make or threaten to make an intimate photograph or film of another person public in order to cause them distress.
In Wales, the government has set out its strategy to prevent child sexual abuse, protect children from child sexual abuse and support child victims and survivors of sexual abuse in a national action plan (Welsh Government, 2019).