On March 13th with barely a mention in the press revamped sex ASBOs became law. There are now two new civil orders: the sexual harm prevention order and the sexual risk order. Notably a person can be made subject to a sexual risk order even if they have never been convicted of a criminal offence. And there can be no expiry date – so legally a person could be made subject to this order for the rest of their lives.
The Home Office say triumphantly that “the grounds on which these orders may be made are wider than those for the current orders.” The police can apply to a court for a sexual risk order where an individual has done an act of a sexual nature (but not necessarily been convicted of such an act) and as a result poses a risk of sexual harm to the public. I thought the substantive criminal law was there to protect the public from sexual harm, but perhaps I am just old-fashioned. These new civil orders are the latest response to cases of child sexual exploitation.
There are a number of issues worth examining with these new civil orders. The police like civil orders because they are much easier to obtain than having to go through the hassle of arresting, charging and trying a defendant for a criminal offence, especially sexual offences which can be tough to prove.
And as they are civil orders, and not criminal trials they have a lower burden of proof and therefore much easier to secure. So it is hoped these civil orders are not used instead of putting suspects on criminal trial but in addition to this.
Also it seems unusual that just when the tradition ASBO is falling out of fashion and that these sex ASBOs are revamped and easier to obtain. But crucially the question remains will they help prevent young girls from being sexually abused and exploited?
It is the police who apply to the magistrates’ court for a sexual risk order. But as explained in a previous blog, in Rochdale at least, one of the problems was that clear evidence of child sexual exploitation was not passed on either to the police or indeed to social services.
Girls who were known to be having underage sexual intercourse were simply dismissed as having made a ‘lifestyle choice.’ As if a girls could make a lifestyle choice to being statutorily raped.
It was the culture surrounding underage sex, particularly an obsession with reducing teenage conceptions to the detriment of the overall welfare of at risk girls, that contributed to their abuse, not lack of police powers. In Rochdale, enforcing the age of consent was seen as some kind of optional extra.
These new sex ASBOs may well become useful tools in protecting vulnerable girls, but for this to occur the police must first have information on which to make an application. This will mean GPs and sexual health clinics cannot just turn a blind eye to underage sexual activity. It is a change in culture that is required more than fancy new ASBOs on the statute books.