Whatever the personal demons that led Doug Richard to have sex with a thirteen year old, they are now irrelevant to the law. Jurors cleared Richard of child sex charges – ruling that he had a “reasonable belief” that she was over eighteen.
But beyond Richard’s acquittal, the defence of “reasonable belief” leaves a loophole in our legislation that allows men to purchase girls as young as thirteen each and every day, knowing full well they will virtually never be charged; and if charged, they’re unlikely to see court.
It’s illegal to pay for sex with someone under the age of eighteen. But those bought between the ages of thirteen and seventeen inhabit a special kind of legal limbo; protected in statute but not by the state – because the defence of reasonable belief exists.
In practice, this defence is almost always sufficient to avoid charge or conviction.
It was uncontested that Richard paid a total of £480 to the thirteen year old girl and an older companion, including £120 to transport them from Norwich and then £60 in cash as a ‘gift’ to each girl. He paid £149 for an apartment in which to meet. He said he thought the thirteen year old girl was seventeen despite her five foot, sub-six-stone frame.
When Richard was first confronted by police in January last year, his response was noted by officers. He asked them: “Can I ask you a hypothetical question? What if I thought she was over 16 but she was in fact under 16?” The police in attendance directed him to his lawyer; Mr Richard was not convicted of paying for the sexual services of a child.
In evidence to our Inquiry on Prostitution Law in 2013, Sergeant Neil Radford of Nottinghamshire Police told us: “The offence of purchasing sex from a child is… difficult to prove as the defence is usually ‘I thought she was 18’ and the CPS are reluctant to prosecute.”
Ruth Jacobs, who has written extensively on prostitution, told us: “There is no, ‘oh, she looked 18’, or, ‘I was told she was 18’, or, ‘she showed me ID that said’, whatever. It doesn’t matter if she looked 25 or 30 and she had her grey roots showing. If she’s a child, she’s a child. There needs to be no excuse, and that needs to be charged for child sex abuse and get rid of this ‘prostitution’ label and this ‘child prostitute’. It is child sex abuse.”
We recommended removing the defence of reasonable belief below the age of sixteen. Why? Because of the scale of this problem.
In our call for evidence for the Inquiry, 37 of the 39 organisations that submitted evidence on child sexual exploitation regularly worked with women in prostitution who had entered the trade underage. The Home Office concluded in 2004 that around half began their involvement in prostitution before their 18th birthday. It cited other studies that put the figure closer to 75 per cent.
Men who buy sex with children don’t only abuse a child; they drive this exploitative trade. No-one is forced to buy sex. Too many are forced to sell it.
A first step to protecting the most vulnerable of these is to close the child sex buyer loophole.