A Scottish children’s charity has called for a review of how the justice system deals with people convicted of viewing online images of children being sexually abused.
Children 1st is writing to Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill as part of its demand for a consistent approach to the prosecution and sentencing of such offences across the country.
The charity is also calling for police and the courts to use the full range of powers available to them in cases involving sexual abuse images.
The demand is part of the charity’s ongoing See.Hear.Speak.Act campaign on sexual abuse, and comes in the wake of the recent conviction of Mark Bridger for the murder of five-year-old April Jones in Wales last year.
Bridger had viewed images of children being sexually assaulted on his computer. In a separate case earlier this year, the Old Bailey heard how Stuart Hazell, jailed for murdering 12-year-old Tia Sharp, had searched for images of children being sexually abused on the internet.
The cases have prompted UK-wide calls for greater action to tackle the problem.
Kate Higgins, policy manager at Children 1st, said she believes there is currently too much inconsistency in the sentencing of those convicted of viewing child sexual abuse images in Scotland.
She said: “Our overall call is just for there to be a review of how we’re handling these kind of offences to make sure that they are being prosecuted appropriately and that sentencing is consistent.
“That’s a key way of sending a strong message to society about the seriousness of these offences.”
The charity is demanding that the justice system uses the full range of powers already at its disposal to protect children, particularly Risk of Sexual Harm Orders (RSHOs) and Sexual Offence Prevention Orders (SOPOs).
Such measures allow restrictions to be placed on anyone behaving in a way that suggests they may be a risk to children. However, Children 1st said the most recently-available statistics indicate these powers are not being used enough as an effective preventative measure.
Ms Higgins said some legal experts have raised concerns about RSHOs in particular, because of how the legislation surrounding it is drafted.
“Our response is — if that’s the case, that should be part of the review. If we have something that can’t be used because it’s faulty then we have to improve that.
“We’re calling on the Justice Secretary to work out what’s going on. We need to understand why they’re not being used. If it’s because, as lawyers have suggested, that the legislation is badly drafted, then that needs to be addressed.
“If it’s simply because people are not sure how to use them and there’s a need for training and awareness raising then let’s do that.
“There’s no point in the Government having created measures that they want in place to help protect children from sexual harm if the system is not then using them.
“Let’s see where the weaknesses are and see what we can do to improve upon this.”
Ms Higgins also said some sheriffs have claimed to feel hamstrung by the way some cases are brought to court.
She pointed to a case in Inverness where a sheriff reportedly criticised the fact she was only able to impose a maximum sentence of one year on a man who downloaded almost 500 child sex abuse images because the case was prosecuted at summary level.
“We just need to review it all because here are key ways in which we could be doing more to protect children,” said Ms Higgins.
“In both the April Jones and Tia Sharp cases you had men who made the leap from viewing — albeit increasingly shocking — abusive images, to actually committing murder.
“There is clearly a role that the availability of abusive material is having to bear on abusers making that leap.
“We need to making sure we’re using all the powers and measures we can to encourage people not to do it and not to think that it’s acceptable to view abusive images of children.”