Ross Clark

Britain needs a statute of limitations for sex offences

Britain needs a statute of limitations for sex offences
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In contrast to the many stranglers and IRA terrorists who have become cause célèbres for justice campaigners over the years, there has been no audible campaign claiming that Rolf Harris, jailed in 2014 for 12 historic sex offences, is a victim of a miscarriage of justice. Nevertheless, the failure yesterday of an attempt to convict him on further charges ought to raise the question: should we really be spending vast amounts of time and money prosecuting offences which are pretty low down the scale and which happened decades ago but were never reported until recently?

Of course it is an offence to put your hand up the skirt of a 14-year-old girl – one of the charges against Harris on which the jury failed to reach a verdict. But you don’t have to be a member of the happily-defunct Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE) to wonder whether it is really such a serious offence to be prosecuted 46 years after it is alleged to have happened, long after anyone can really be expected to know where they were and what they were doing on any particular day. Mugging, too, is a serious offence, but just try walking into a police station and trying to report that you were coshed over the head and relieved of your wallet in 1971. There is a statute of limitations on most crimes which prevents them being prosecuted after such a period. Yet almost alone in the world, we do not have such a statute on sex offences.

The usual argument for not having a statute of limitation on sex offences is that child victims might not have realised what was happening to them at the time and might have been shy about telling anyone what had happened. Yet Rolf’s alleged 14-year-old victim has been an adult for the past 42 years. Others were already adults when the offences were claimed to have occurred. Surely, it is not unreasonable to expect people to come forward rather sooner if they think they have been a victim of a serious offence.

Authorities have all but given up pursuing terrorist murders back in the 1970s, with old IRA men sent comfort letters assuring them they no longer face prosecution. How bizarre that placing an uninvited hand on someone’s knee can now be effectively treated as a more serious matter than blowing their head off with Semtex.

The lack of a statute of limitations on sex offences is beginning to make our justice system look bizarrely sex-obsessed. It is rather as if the criminal justice system is being run by the prisoners – in whose moral code murderers can be held up as heroes but nonces are the lowest of the low. For murder and rape it is right that there should be no statute of limitation, but for accusations of groping and stroking, six months would be a perfectly wide enough window for victims to come forward.