A consultation has been launched seeking views on whether a new public sexual harassment offence is needed in England and Wales. Currently there are no laws specifically covering public sexual harassment, but prosecutions can be pursued under existing legislation.

Sexual Harassment Offences

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The laws on public sexual harassment

Public sexual harassment includes behaviours such as catcalls, whistles, unwanted sexual comments or jokes, cornering, following an individual, groping and other forms of unwanted physical contact.

At the moment, there is no specific offence of public sexual harassment. However, there is existing legislation which can be used to prosecute individuals accused of this form of harassment. For example, section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 applies when a person uses threatening or abusive words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, within the hearing or sight of a person who is likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress as a result. The Sexual Offences Act 2003 also covers incidents of groping, indecent exposure and other forms of physical contact that amount to sexual harassment.

Is a new offence needed?

While the government believes that public sexual harassment can already be prosecuted under existing criminal offences, it has decided to launch a consultation seeking views on the matter. The consultation will consider whether a new law specifically covering public sexual harassment is needed. If there were to be such a new law, the consultation asks for opinions as to the best approach. Two options have been proposed:

Option 1 would create a new offence which would apply when a person commits an offence under section 4A of the Public Order Act 1986, and does so because of the complainant’s sex. Their having committed the offence because of the complainant’s sex would mean that the defendant could receive a longer sentence than if that had not been their motivation.

Option 2 takes option 1 as its starting point but includes a list of types of threatening, abusive, insulting or disorderly behaviour which might in particular circumstances be carried out because of a person’s sex. The list includes following someone, cornering and making obscene or aggressive comments towards someone. The list is not exhaustive and is intended as a guide.

The consultation also asks whether there are any non-legislative actions the government should take to tackle public sexual harassment. These measures could be carried out either in addition to, or instead of, a new offence.

What happens next?

The consultation runs until 1 September 2022. The government will consider the responses and determine the best approach. We will continue to post updates on our blog. Even if a new offence is not created, it could be that existing legislation is amended to incorporate incidents of public sexual harassment.

Consultation – Sexual Harassment

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