As of today, sexual communication with a child under the age of 16 is now a criminal offence. 

Anyone aged 18 or over who intentionally communicates with a child under 16, acting for a sexual purpose and where the communication is sexual or intended to elicit a sexual response can be sent to jail for a maximum of two years, and will automatically be placed on the Sex Offenders Register.

The offence applies to online and offline communication, including social media, e-mail, texts, letters, and other forms of communication.

The law was created after the NSPCC campaigned for better protections for children online. During the Lords Report stage of the Serious Crime Bill Lord Harris of Haringey then tabled an amendment proposing a new criminal offence in this area.

The provisions can be found in S.67 of The Serious Crime Act 2015:

Sexual communication with a child

After section 15 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 insert—

15A Sexual communication with a child

(1)A person aged 18 or over (A) commits an offence if—

(a)for the purpose of obtaining sexual gratification, A intentionally communicates with another person (B),

(b)the communication is sexual or is intended to encourage B to make (whether to A or to another) a communication that is sexual, and

(c)B is under 16 and A does not reasonably believe that B is 16 or over.

(2)For the purposes of this section, a communication is sexual if—

(a)any part of it relates to sexual activity, or

(b)a reasonable person would, in all the circumstances but regardless of any person’s purpose, consider any part of the communication to be sexual;

and in paragraph (a) “sexual activity” means an activity that a reasonable person would, in all the circumstances but regardless of any person’s purpose, consider to be sexual.

(3)A person guilty of an offence under this section is liable—

(a)on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months or a fine or both;

(b)on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 2 years.

Researching Reform has received guidance notes on this new law, and we can tell you the following:

  • Laws previously in place do already address this kind of behaviour, however they are unlikely to apply if the communication does not ask the child to engage in sexual activity, and many do not require automatic sex offender registration.
  • This is NOT an internet specific offence. It will apply equally to offline and online communications, including oral communication and written notes.
  • The new law will only apply where the defendant can be shown to have acted for the purposes of obtaining sexual gratification. This distinction has been created to ensure that ordinary discussions such as family chats on safe sex guidance or discussions in an educational context, will not be caught by the offence.

How this behaviour will be detected, remains. With many online messaging platforms using encryption and the existing difficulties surrounding children reporting this kind of communication and adults identifying it, prosecution in this area will be difficult, but the new law will at least send out the message that grooming is not acceptable and perpetrators are being targeted in a much more focused way.