Operation Notarise: The Legal Implications of Accessing Child Abuse Images Online
A six-month nation-wide investigation into images of child abuse online resulted in the arrest of 660 people this week. Although most of the suspects are yet to be charged due to ongoing enquiries into their specific cases, it’s been announced that alleged offences include the possession of indecent images and serious sexual assault.
Coordinated by the National Crime Agency (NCA), Operation Notarise targeted people allegedly accessing child abuse images on the Internet, a majority of whom were unknown to the police and other law enforcement agencies. It has also been reported that those in positions of trust were prioritised, with some of those arrested being teachers, doctors and former police officers.
Child abuse began to dominate public debate following wide media reporting on Operation Yewtree in 2012, when it was revealed that 70s television presenter Jimmy Savile was a prolific child abuser. Two years later, and the UK Government has just announced two independent inquiries: one into the capabilities of public bodies and institutions to deal with child abuse and another on allegations of sexual abuse by those who took advantage of positions of power. The number of reports of sexual abuse of children also continues to rise, as do the number of victims coming forward and speaking out against their abusers.
As society debates how to tackle child abuse and protect the vulnerable, here we think about how the law currently tries to hold those who exploit children on the Internet accountable and the legal issues that can arise in cases involving indecent images of children.
Investigating Online Child Abuse
One of the major issues partially addressed by Operation Notarise is the complexity of policing criminal use of the Internet. The transience of online information, issues of jurisdiction and wide use of the ‘dark net’ by more serious offenders has proven problematic. Why the NCA appears to have succeeded where others failed seems to be due to the sharing of intelligence between 45 police forces across the UK.
The ability to share information about illegal Internet use suggests it is likely that there will be more mass arrests of individuals, connected for no other reason than having accessed indecent images of children online.
Indecent Images Offences
Individuals accused of offences relating to child abuse images are most likely to be charged with:
– Making, distributing, showing or advertising any indecent photograph of a child (section 1 of the Protection of Children Act 1978). This covers acts such as downloading/printing indecent images from the Internet or giving another person a password so they can access a photograph on a computer. The prosecution must prove that the accused deliberately did, or intended to do, one of the prohibited acts. The law provides defences that protect those who have a legitimate reason to handle indecent images or are victims of an uninvited pop-up on their computer screens;
– Possession of an indecent photograph of a child (section 160 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988). Similar to the offence in the 1978 Act, the prosecution must prove that the accused had knowledge of the possession of the photograph. Similar defences are also available for those with a legitimate reason for having the photograph or where possession is beyond their control.
For both of these offences, a jury decides whether the image is indecent and of a child, and photograph means an actual photograph or an image that appears to be one, as well as forms of data that derive from photographs, such as tracings.
For non-photographic images, there is also the relatively new offence of possession of a prohibited image of a children (section 62 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009). This offence covers computer generated images, drawings, manga images and cartoons that are obscene pornographic images of children. As well as the usual defences, there is also an exemption for images that form part of a work classified by the British Board of Film Classification.
In more serious cases, an accused may also be charged with causing or inciting a child to engage in sexual activity (section 10 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003), or engaging in sexual activity in the presence of a child (section 11 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003).
Before a trial starts, the prosecution will select charges that reflect the seriousness of the alleged offence. The more serious the offence, the greater the sentence should the accused be convicted. In cases involving indecent photographs of children, the seriousness of an offence is determined according to the nature of the indecent photograph (which is categorised on a five-point scale), the extent of the accused’s involvement with the material and the age of the child.
Protecting the Vulnerable and the Innocent
As well as it being in the public interest, the prominence of the issue of child abuse in society and the media, as well as greater scrutiny of Internet use, suggests the 660 arrests made this week are only the beginning.
Further allegations of child sex abuse against celebrities and politicians can certainly be expected. Some of these will be well-founded, such as those against former entertainer Rolf Harris, while others will not, such as those against Coronation Street actor William Roache.
Expert Criminal Defence Lawyers
Our specialist criminal defence team have an outstanding record in defending clients accused of sexual offences, led by Stuart Sutton, having been involved in many of the high profile cases relating to child abuse reported in the media. We understand the distressing issues that can arise for people accused of serious crimes, as well as their families, and are sensitive to the issues that these cases can involve. For more information on how we can help, contact Stuart on 0808 164 6795 or at firstname.lastname@example.org