New sex bill makes it a crime to pay prostitutes for 'services'
The Sexual Offences Bill, the largest planned overhaul of Ireland's outdated sexual crime laws, has received a warm but qualified welcome by groups representing victims of sexual violence.
The mammoth bill, introduced by Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald, contains a new range of offences aimed at protecting children from sexual exploitation and grooming by predators, especially on internet and social-media platforms.
New measures include the proposed criminalisation of recruiting a child to take part in a pornographic performance, attending such a performance with a child and organising child prostitution or child pornography.
The law will also criminalise payment for sexual activity with a prostitute, but the person offering sexual acts will not be guilty of a criminal offence.
The age of consent will remain at 17, however, a two-year 'proximity of age' defence will be available to recognise that young people can engage in consensual sexual acts.
The clause will be relied upon if the sexual act is non-exploitative, consensual and the parties are aged within two years of each other.
Video evidence will be extended for child victims of sexual offences and defendants will not be able to personally cross-examine children under the age of 18 during trials.
The same protection has not been extended to adult complainants, however.
The Government has moved to protect victims by limiting access to their private counselling notes during a criminal trial and under the new regime victims will be afforded separate legal representation for this part of criminal proceedings. The law will also permit judges to impose court orders on convicted attackers, preventing them from contacting their victims.
An anomaly in Ireland's incest laws has been addressed, which will see women who are guilty of that offence punished by up to a life sentence, as is already the case with male perpetrators of incest.
Support groups who campaigned for a statutory definition of consent have been disappointed by its exclusion from the draft bill.
"We are disappointed not to see a definition of consent in the new legislation and we are hoping to convince Minister Fitzgerald that to amend the bill to include a definition of consent would go a long way to further strengthening the legislation on sexual offences," said Ellen O'Malley Dunlop, chief executive of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre.
She said the bill was "very ambitious" and provided for a wide range of reforms.
"We commend the minister and her officials on the sterling work that has gone into this publication," she added.
Victim support group One in Four said it hoped that the criminalisation of the purchase of sex would go some way to reducing the devastation caused by trafficking and the exploitation of vulnerable women through prostitution.
Executive director Maeve Lewis urged Ms Fitzgerald to extend the ban on cross-examination personally by the accused to all complainants, not just those under 18.
Ms Fitzgerald said the bill provided for a more effective response to sexual offending and responded to new threats, such as online predators.