Lifelong stigma over having non-coercive sex with girl

 

The 11-month sentence for a man over sex with a girl under 17 brings the law into sharp focus, writes CAROL COULTER

IN MULLINGAR District Court last week, Judge John Neilan imposed an 11-month sentence on a young man who admitted the offence of sex with a girl under the legal age of consent, which is 17 years. She was 16 and three- quarters when the incident took place, and he was 19. The judge accepted the youth did not know the age of consent was 17, and a consultant psychiatrist told the court it was “a very widely held belief” that the age of consent was 16. The judge adjourned the case for consideration of victim impact and probation reports.

Earlier this year, the Oireachtas Committee on a Children’s Constitutional amendment spent many months discussing the age of consent and the need to have a constitutional amendment to restore the situation whereby sex with a girl under this age was a crime for which there could be no defence. Committee members who backed the idea of a constitutional amendment insisted cases such as that before Judge Neilan would never be prosecuted. The DPP indicated that a prosecution was unlikely in such circumstances.

Nothing was said in court last week to indicate any element of coercion or violence that would have brought this case to special DPP attention. Nonetheless, his office must have given permission for the prosecution to go ahead.

In this case the judge referred to the fact the girl’s parents did not approve of the relationship, and the young man admitted they “did not have a particular liking” for him. Her father had looked for the girl and come upon the couple, resulting in her being brought to the Garda station and a complaint being made.

Judge Neilan acknowledged the young man thought the age of consent was 16 and said he had “set out fairly and squarely his involvement in the incident”, but drew attention to the fact that he knew the parents did not like him. Before sentencing, he said accused was “strictly on notice that he should have absolutely nothing to do with her”.

The full account of this case, made available to The Irish Times by local reporter Claire O’Brien, shows the judge laid great emphasis on the fact the girl’s parents did not approve of the relationship between her and the young man. Indeed, as a result, he had suggested they not see each other, but the girl had insisted.

Two weeks ago the High Court overturned an adoption order where the birth parents had been 19 and 15 when the sexual relationship began. Yet nowhere in that case was there any hint that there had been a criminal prosecution along the way.

A conviction such as that handed down to the young man in Mullingar, who honestly did not think he was committing a crime and who did not coerce the girl, means he will carry the stigma for life, with huge implications for him. He may be placed on the sex offenders’ register. He will never be able to enter the US and many occupations will be closed to him.

Last February the DPP told the Oireachtas committee his office often came under pressure from parents to bring prosecutions in cases of non-coercive sex between teenagers of similar age. In practice, he said, neither he nor his predecessor prosecuted such cases, and of the cases prosecuted since the introduction of the 2006 Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act, there was an age gap of six years or more in almost 85 per cent of the cases.

If the determining factor in the bringing of such cases, and of their outcome in court, is the attitude of parents, it introduces an element of private prosecution at odds with the fundamental principles of our justice system.

Carol Coulter is Legal Affairs Editor