A private member’s bill to provide the offense of public sexual harassment based on sex is progressing through Parliament and, on December 9, 2022, the government announced its support for the bill. The bill, titled Protection from Sex-based Harassment in Public, will add a new section 4B to the Public Order Act 1986 and provide for an offense of “intentional harassment, alarm or distress on account of sex.” While there are a wide range of offenses that cover acts that amount to harassment, there is no specific offense of public sexual harassment based upon sex. The offense builds upon the current offense of intentional harassment, alarm, or distress, and increases the penalty from the current maximum punishment of up to six months’ imprisonment to up to two years’ imprisonment or a fine upon conviction on indictment, or both. As of December 12, 2022, the bill was in the committee stage in the House of Commons.
Government support of the bill, which builds upon the government’s Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy, was announced after it published its response to a targeted consultation on December 8, 2022. The consultation considered whether a criminal offense of public sexual harassment should be introduced. The government sent the consultation to specific bodies, sectors, and institutions including, but not limited to, schools, the legal sector, police, charities working with women and girls, transportation organizations, local government, and specialist academia. While the government appeared initially resistant to legislation in this area, in its response to the consultation, the government determined that an offense of public sexual harassment should be introduced and that such a law would have a deterrent effect, provide clarity for both the public and police, emphasize the severity of the offense, and encourage reporting the offense. The government also noted that the introduction of the crime would raise awareness, “drive cultural change,” and address concerns that “the existing law is insufficient to deal with public sexual harassment.”
The majority of respondents to the targeted consultation stated they preferred that a higher sentence be available for offensive behavior that falls within the existing section 4A of the Public Order Act 1986 when it is a result of the victim’s sex and that a nonprescriptive list of behaviors the section applies to should be included. The government determined that the higher sentence for a section 4A offense was the appropriate approach, but that including a list of defined behaviors in the law could “become prescriptive, [could] rapidly become out of date as new behaviours emerge, and, although such lists are illustrative only, in practice they [could] have the effect of ruling out other types of behaviour from being considered.”
This approach is contained in the Protection from Sex-based Harassment in Public bill as it is currently written.
Clare Feikert-Ahalt, Law Library of Congress
January 27, 2023
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