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Sexual Offences Articles

Can you go to jail for talking to a minor online in the UK?

child grooming

It is common knowledge that having sexual relations with a minor under the age of 16 years old is illegal, regardless of whether or not they consent to the activity. But what about chatting, whether in person, online, or through messaging apps? Here, the law gets a little more complicated. Whether or not this is illegal depends on the nature of the conversation. Where both parties are under the age of 16, the crucial factor is whether any indecent photographs were exchanged. Landing up on the wrong side of the law could lead to a serious criminal conviction, and jail time. Here, we unpack the different criminal offences relating to communicating with minors.

What is child grooming?

Child grooming is where a person ‘builds a relationship, trust and emotional connection with a child or a young person so they can manipulate, exploit and abuse them.’ Often the purpose of this grooming is facilitate the sexual abuse, exploitation or trafficking of the child. Grooming can take place online or in person. Sometimes the groomer will also establish a relationship with the young person’s family or friends to make them seem trustworthy or authoritative. Where grooming takes place online, the groomer may assume a false identity e.g. by sending photographs of someone else and pretending to be them, often someone closer to the age of the child.

According to the NSPCC, the number of reported cases of online child grooming in the UK have increased by almost 70% in the past three years.

Is talking to a minor online illegal in the UK?

It is not illegal for an adult to talk with a child online per se, but sexual communication with a child is a criminal offence. As of 3 April 2017, groomers who target children through mobile phones and social media could face up to two years in prison if convicted of ‘sexual communication with a child’. They will also be added to the sex offenders register. According to the government, the purpose of this offence is to enable the police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to intervene earlier in child grooming cases, before sexual activity has occurred.

The offence of sexual communication with a child is set out at Section 67 of the Serious Crime Act 2015, Section 15A. The elements of the offence are as follows:

  1. The perpetrator is over the age of 18
  2. They intentionally communicate with a child under the age of 16
  3. The perpetrator does not reasonably believe that the child is over the age of 16
  4. The communication is of a sexual nature, or is intended to encourage the child to make a communication which is sexual
  5. The perpetrator was acting for the purposes of obtaining sexual gratification

The offence will be made out regardless of whether the child communicates with the adult. Between April 2020 and March 2021, police recorded 5441 offences of a sexual communication with a child, demonstrating the prevalence of this offence, and the zest with which the police are enforcing this new law.

In addition, where indecent photographs of a child are sent, one or both parties may be prosecuted under the Protection of Children Act 1978.

According to the NSPCC, 32% of child grooming takes place on Instagram, whilst 23% occurs on Facebook and 14% of offences happens on Snapchat.

Is flirting with a minor illegal?

Whether or not flirting with a minor is unlawful depends on if it meets the criteria for sexual communication with a child under the age of 16 set out above. The offence of sexual communication with a child applies both to online activity, and verbal conversations had in person or via the telephone. For example, say you are 20 year old man. You message a 14 year old girl via Facebook. If you ask her to send pictures of herself without clothes on, you would be committing the offence of sexual communication with a child. However, not all communication with a child online would be sexual communication.

The term ‘flirting’ implies that the conversation is driven by sexual attraction, which might suggest that it would fulfil the offence of sexual communication. However, whether flirting comprises sexual communication depends on the following criteria:

  1. Was the ‘flirting’ communication of a sexual nature or was it intended to encourage the child to communicate in a sexual way?
  2. If the answer to the first question is yes, was the communication for the purposes of your sexual gratification?

If the answer to both questions is yes, then the conduct is unlawful.

Is exchanging messages with a minor illegal?

Not all communications with a minor under the age of 16 are illegal. For example, it would not be unlawful for a teacher to communicate with a child regarding their homework, providing that this was permitted by the school’s policy, and the communication was made in good faith. Similarly, if you had agreed to collect your friend’s child from school, it would not be unlawful to communicate with them to organise a time and location to be picked up.

However, any messages exchanged with a child of a sexual nature are likely to be unlawful. For example, if you are over the age of 18 and you exchange messages with a child under the age of 16 with the purpose of meeting up to partake in a sexual activity, you would be committing an offence. Likewise, if you sent or encouraged them to send messages of a sexual nature, with the purpose of obtaining sexual gratification, you would most likely be committing the offence of sexual communication with a child.

Is ‘sextinga minor illegal?

‘Sexting’ is a slang term for the action or practice of sending sexually explicit photographs or messages via mobile phone. If you are over the age of 18 years old, and you are sexting someone who is under the age of 16 years old, it is likely that what you are doing is illegal, as it would comprise sexual communication with a child. Where pictures are exchanged, it would also be an offence under the Protection of Children Act 1978. This old law makes it an offence to distribute indecent pictures of children.

If both the parties are under the age of 16 years old, whilst a prosecution for sexual communication with a child would not be possible, one or both could be prosecuted under the Protection of Children Act 1978. Thousands of children have been investigated for this offence, even where the sexting was consensual. Between January 2017 to 21 August 2019, 6499 children under the age of 14 were investigated for sexting offences.

What is the Sex Offenders Register?

Since 1997, if you accept a police caution, or receive a conviction for a sexual offence you will be added to the Sex Offenders Register. This includes internet-based sexual offences. If you have served a custodial sentence, within three days of your release you sign the register at your local police station. If you do not sign the register, you are liable to be prosecuted for a further criminal offence. Upon registration, you will need to provide:

  • Your full name and any other names that you use
  • The addresses of any properties that you stay at for more than 7 days per year
  • Your date of birth
  • Your national insurance number
  • Your passport details

You will also need to notify the police:

  • Of all foreign travel
  • If you are staying with a child under the age of 18 for 12 hours or more
  • Of certain financial information such a credit cards and bank account details

The police will require you to return to the police station at regular intervals to confirm you are still complying with the register requirements. If you do not have a fixed address, you will have to sign in at the police station once a week.

The length of time that you will spend on the sex offenders register varies depending on the length of your sentence.

Length of sentence Length of time on the sex offenders register
30 months or more in prison Indefinite
6-30 months in prison Ten years
0-6 months in prison Seven years
Caution Two years

Where to get further help

If you have been charged with an offence relating to grooming a minor, you would be well advised to enlist the help of a trusted criminal defence solicitor. The right legal team can help set the record straight, whether this is assisting you build a robust defence, or by putting forward a plea in mitigation to reduce the length of your sentence. At Stuart Miller Solicitors, we have many years of experience in guiding our clients through the criminal justice system. No case is too big or too small for us. Contact us for a no-obligation consultation today.


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