Indecent images – are the police about to embark upon a new approach?

14 November 2018

The Telegraph reported earlier this month that new guidance issued by the Ministry of Justice is encouraging the police to consider offering conditional cautions to people who view indecent images of children (“IIOC”) online. Although the guidance does not appear to be publicly available, the report suggests that the government considers conditional cautions may be appropriate in cases involving low-risk offenders, where tough conditions can be attached.

This is not the first time that such a proposal has been made. We previously blogged on this issue when Simon Bailey, the National Police Chiefs’ Council’s lead on child abuse, suggested that this would be a sensible way of dealing with cases of this nature.

As we argued then, there are compelling reasons why a conditional caution will often be the most effective method of disposal in indecent images cases.

Conditional cautions allow the police a great deal of flexibility in deciding how to deal with an offender. As a result, it is possible to essentially replicate the requirements which would be attached to a typical (non-custodial) sentence imposed at court for such an offence. For example, the offender could be required to undertake unpaid work, attend counselling or therapy to address underlying issues, or make financial reparation. As such, conditional cautions are by no means a “soft” option for offenders.

Following the police interviewing a suspect for IIOC offences, it will usually be many months, sometimes more than a year, before the case concludes at court and a sentence is passed. A conditional caution, on the other hand, can be administered immediately after the interview (assuming all requirements are met, in particular that a clear admission has been made). The practical effect of this distinction is of huge importance, as it means that cautions allow offenders to get the help they need aimed at reducing reoffending and, crucially, protecting the public much sooner than would otherwise be the case.  

By diverting cases of this nature away from an already overstretched court system, significant public funds can be saved. Indecent images offences are increasing at an alarming rate; according to a recent report by the Home Affairs Select Committee, there was an increase of 424% between 2013-14 and 2017-18. The impact on the precious resources of the criminal justice system will therefore only intensify with time.

There will of course be cases where proceeding to court and inviting a judge to pass sentence in the usual way will be the only option. However, where the circumstances of the offence and the offender allow, there is a clear benefit and public interest in disposing of a case by way of a conditional caution. It is hoped that police forces across the country will respond enthusiastically to this guidance and we will start to see a move away from the traditional approach of taking all cases of this nature to court.

Further information                                                                                                                   

For further information on the issues raised in this blog post, please contact a member of our criminal litigation team in confidence.

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