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The term ‘historic offence’ refers to an offence committed some time ago, often many years earlier. Probably the best example is Operation Yewtree concerning the police investigation into historic sexual abuse allegations relating to Jimmy Saville and other celebrities.
Due to the length of time that has elapsed, prosecutors will often bring cases with little or no corroboration or forensic evidence. In effect, the prosecution is based solely on the word of the complainant. This can cause a problem for someone accused of a historic offence because no complaint was made at the time of the alleged offence. A basic principle of criminal proceedings is that a defendant should be able to test the evidence presented by the prosecution. When the evidence is just the word of the complainant, it is more difficult for a defendant to disprove the allegation.
This is a complex, unsettled area of law where prosecutions are often based on the complainant’s word against that of the defendant.
A jury may not be able to tell the difference between a genuine victim and a malicious or deluded complainant.
Historic cases are covered by the law that was in force at the time of the alleged offence. For most sexual offences, the law changed in 2004 following the introduction of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. This may mean that solicitors have to consider the earlier law, making a defence more complicated. Any defence will benefit from the involvement of specialist defence solicitors.
- Concerning allegations of rape committed before 3rd November 1994, a man cannot be the victim of rape. It was also a defence if the defendant genuinely believed the other person consented, even if that belief was unreasonable.
- Concerning allegations of rape committed between 3rd November 1994 and 30th April 2004, the victim may be male or female. The offence could only be committed by a man.
- Concerning allegations of rape committed on or after 1st May 2004, both men and women can be victims of rape. The offence can also be committed by a man or a woman.
- Concerning an allegation of rape committed by a husband against his wife, in the past this was not an offence. This is now an offence and, unusually, the law is to be read retrospectively. This means that a person can now be convicted of raping his wife some years earlier when it was not actually an offence at the time the act was committed.
It is extremely important for anyone accused of a historic offence to have specialist legal representation from the outset. Please refer to our page on police process for advice relating to the police investigation, interview and charging.
As already noted, the prosecution case will largely depend on the word of the complainant. The credibility of the complainant and the defendant is likely to be the determining factor in the case. Any defence must therefore be handled with a particular concentration on the background of the complainant and third part disclosure. More investigatory work will be required than would otherwise be the case.
Often with a historic case the accused will have no relevant criminal convictions and will be of excellent character. Defence solicitors must therefore advance a positive and proactive defence case. During a trial, the barrister will stress the good character of the accused. The aim is to put the accused before the jury as a person whose life and reputation is simply incompatible with the type of behaviour alleged. This can be reinforced with written character references for the jury to read as well as live character witnesses appearing in court.
Please refer to our page on evidence and your defence for more detailed advice
If convicted of a historic offence, the sentence will depend on several factors including the type of sexual offence, the age of the victim, the period over which the abuse took place, the age of the victim then and now and the extent of the harm caused to the victim. The passage of time, and whether the defendant has used this to lead a blameless life, will be considered in mitigation.
More details on sentencing and the approach to be used at a trial can be found on our page evidence and your defence.