Ireland introduces much needed ‘child grooming’ bill
6th February 2021
The Department of Justice recently announced a Bill to outlaw the grooming of children. The Bill will create new criminal offences in this area of law, which will result in up to five years in prison if convicted. The Bill was announced by Minister for Justice Helen McEntee TD and the Minister of State for Law Reform James Browne TD. It hopes to deliver on Programme for Government commitments to criminalise the coercion of children into selling and supplying drugs, and the grooming of children to commit crimes. Legislators believe that this reform will be a key step in their efforts to prevent gangs from leading children into a life of crime.
In basic terms, the Bill will create specific offences which apply to adults who compel, coerce, induce or invite a child to engage in criminal activity. This would criminalise the offence for the first time, and aims to directly deal with the harm that results from criminal coercion of children.
This Bill makes a differentiation between an already well-established offence, which involves using children as innocent agents to commit a crime. As an example, imagine if an adult instructed a child to steal from a store. Generally speaking, a child under 12-years old cannot be convicted for most offences. So, in that situation, who should be held responsible? The law holds that the adult is the guilty party, and they can be convicted as a principal offender, meaning they can be punished as though they committed the crime themselves. However, in the past the adult might only have been convicted for theft, whereas under this new Bill the adult could also be convicted of coercion of a child. This new offence makes a direct stance against child grooming, and highlights the damage done to a child by drawing them into a world of criminality.
“Legislators believe that this reform will be a key step in their efforts to prevent gangs from leading children into a life of crime.”
Those found guilty of the new offences face imprisonment of 12 months on summary conviction and up to five years on indictment. Also, for this offence, the child that was groomed does not have to be successful in carrying out the offence for the law to apply. The UK National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children noted that online child grooming offences passed 10,000 occurrences in the two and a half years since the introduction of their similar laws, indicating the potential scope and effect that this Bill may have.
As a final point, this Bill is a timely addition to the Irish legal sphere, given the well documented rise in online attacks on children during the COVID-19 pandemic. Online sexual assault and sexual grooming of children has increased, particularly in the modern practice of revenge porn. This surge in grooming has been seen internationally, where in the UK the Revenge Porn Helpline has reported that, “the number of people seeking help for intimate image abuse nearly doubled in the week beginning March 23, when the government imposed its stay-at-home orders, with more cases opened in the following month than any previous four-week period”. Similarly, Australia’s eSafety Commissioner also reported an increase during the pandemic period, with reports of anywhere from a 210% to 600% increase in ‘image-based abuse’ cases. With more Irish children spending hours each day online due to lockdown, this Bill is a welcome reform to Irish law.