Sexual violence to be tackled more swiftly and more often
Thanks to updates to legislation, more criminal cases involving the prosecution of rape, sexually transgressive behaviour online and sexual harassment are expected. By means of the sexual offences bill, Minister of Justice and Security Ferdinand Grapperhaus will be bringing criminal law more in line with changed social norms and digital developments. In particular, this is expected to result in reports of rape and online cases, such as ‘sex chatting’, being addressed more swiftly and more often. To ensure that all legal practitioners – such as the police, the Public Prosecution Service and the judiciary – are prepared for the extra cases, a special implementation programme is to be initiated.
The sexual offences bill will be presented for advice to the Council of State this week, following approval by cabinet last Friday. The aim is to bring the bill before the House of Representatives next spring. On Friday, the cabinet also approved the proposal to bring before the House of Representatives a bill to criminalise acts performed in preparation for the commission of child sexual abuse independently. The bill explicitly prohibits the possession of material such as texts containing advice and/or guidance to facilitate child sexual abuse.
Preparing for implementation
In view of the wide scope of the updates to sex crimes legislation, meticulous preparation with the involvement of all stakeholders will be essential for effective implementation. As a consequence, spring 2022 will see the launch of a programme for the implementation of the sexual offences bill. Over the next two years, all parties involved will work together to educate, train and recruit the requisite specialist staff throughout the criminal justice system. This pertains not only to the police, the Public Prosecution Service and the judiciary. The Netherlands Forensic Institute (NFI), too, is expected to have to do more investigative work, and local authorities will be involved when it comes to sexual harassment on the streets. The new legislation is expected to come into force in 2024.
Following the adoption of Member of Parliament Hermans’ motion by the House of Representatives during the Parliamentary Debate on the Speech from the Throne this year, €20 million has been earmarked for the implementation of the new legislation. Furthermore, another €4 million will be invested each year in police resources to continue reducing existing backlogs for the Vice and Child Pornography teams. This sum is in addition to the €15 million previously allocated for 90 extra FTEs’ worth of vice detectives to expedite the detection and prosecution of sex crimes.
It is expected that victims of sexually transgressive behaviour will be more likely to come forward to make a report and that the number of reports will increase, largely due to the lowering of the criminal liability threshold for rape. In due course, Grapperhaus’ sexual offences bill will make it possible for someone to be punishable for rape if they knew or had good reason to suspect that the other person did not want to have sex and went ahead anyway. Coercion, violence and threats, while aggravating factors, will no longer be a requirement for conviction. The person initiating sexual contact must be alert to whether the other person wants the same. If this is not clear, he or she should seek clarification.
‘If the other person is not free to choose, has no free will, then it is rape,’
Police estimates, for example, assume that the new bill will lead to up to 550 more reports of rape being made and 360 more investigative interviews being held with victims, meaning a 20% increase in both cases. It is estimated that this increase will result in 344 additional investigations into rape cases being initiated.
Online sexual violence
The sexual offences bill also updates criminal law protection against sexually transgressive behaviour online. The rise in the use of the internet, social media and smartphones has resulted in an increase in online interactions of a sexual nature. Children are particularly vulnerable to online sexual abuse, as they are using smartphones at an increasingly younger age and are much more accessible to people with malicious intent.
New in the bill is the criminalisation of ‘sex chatting’ with a child under the age of 16 when this is perpetrated by an adult. This will ensure that online sexual solicitation of those under the age of 16 is more readily punishable. At present, such communication cannot be deemed grooming without arrangements to meet the child actually being made. The police estimate that this will result in up to 500 additional reports, leading to 320 of those cases being referred to the Public Prosecution Service and charges being pressed.
Sexual harassment in public is also to be made a criminal offence. ‘In public’ means on the street as well as on the internet and on social media. Here, too, there will be a rise in the number of cases, which being minor offences can be addressed relatively swiftly. Local authorities will be closely involved in this aspect of the implementation programme. In the new situation, they will be able to decide at the local level whether it would also be desirable to deploy special investigating officers (BOAs) to combat sexual harassment in the street.
Ahead of the sexual offences bill, a bill is being brought before the House of Representatives that will independently criminalise acts performed in preparation for the commission of child sexual abuse. This will prohibit the possession and distribution of the ‘paedophile manual’, as requested in a motion by the House of Representatives in 2020. Offences will carry a maximum prison sentence of four years.
Criminalising these acts will send a clear message that the behaviour is extremely reprehensible and worthy of punishment. In addition, it will give investigative services the opportunity to take action at an early stage against potential child abusers who show a marked interest in instructional information online vis-à-vis child sexual abuse. This will expand the toolkit against child abuse in a preventive sense with a view to counteracting the formation of a breeding ground that makes child abusers think they can get away with it.