Barbara Hewson is a prominent and usually well-respected barrister. However she has caused quite a furore with this article, where she advocates the reduction of the legal age of consent to 13, the removal of anonymity for rape complainants and the introduction of a statute of limitations. This article was written in light of the recent arrests and prosecutions following Operation Yewtree, a Metropolitan Police investigation into historic sexual abuse by Jimmy Savile and others in the media.
Whatever your opinion on Operation Yewtree Ms Hewson’s suggestions in her article are surprising and disturbing. The first time warning bells rang for me was reading her assertion that “Now even a deputy speaker of the House of Commons is accused of male rape”. ‘ Male rape’ does not exist in a legal sense; rape is rape, whether the victim is male or female, and Ms Hewson’s use of the term suggests a slightly sensationalist bent.
Another alarming assertion made by Ms Hewson is “But the low-level misdemeanours with which Stuart Hall was charged are nothing like serious crime”. (Mr Hall recently admitted 14 offences dating back to the late 1960s, including an assault on a nine-year-old girl). Since when has sexually assaulting a child not been a serious offence? For that matter, what kind of barrister views sexual assault as a low-level misdemeanour?
Ms Hewson also writes that “Touching a 17-year-old’s breast, kissing a 13-year-old, or putting one’s hand up a 16-year-old’s skirt, are not remotely comparable to the horrors of the Ealing Vicarage assaults and gang rape, or the Fordingbridge gang rape and murders, both dating from 1986. Anyone suggesting otherwise has lost touch with reality.” I’m not entirely why she feels that the comparison to gang rape and murder is necessary but it has echoes of Ken Clarke’s 2011 claim that some rapes are less serious than others. This is ridiculous. Sexual assault and rape are both legally and morally wrong; it’s not a competition to see whether some rapes are worse than others, or whether groping a 17 year old is worse than groping a 13 year old.
Ms Hewson’s sole reason for wanting the age of consent reduced to 13 seems to be that in the 1880s, when it was increased from this to the current age of 16, “…puberty for girls was at age 15 (now it is 10)”. This is an idiotic argument – a 10 year old may have the physical maturity to engage in sexual activity and conceive a child but there are few who would claim that they have the emotional or intellectual maturity. I would argue that the same is true for the vast majority of 13 year olds.
Ms Hewson criticises the investigation of historical allegations, saying that “…this national trawl for historical victims was an open invitation to all manner of folk to reinterpret their experience of the past as one of victimisation”. I no longer work in the field of law enforcement but I believe that it is still the case that in order for charges to be brought the CPS must consider that they have a reasonable chance of obtaining a conviction. I agree that the media’s habit of gleefully naming every individual arrested as part of Yewtree is unpleasant and unnecessary, and perhaps gives credence to the suggestion that those accused of rape should also be granted anonymity. However this is no reason for stripping rape complainants of their right to anonymity.
Ms Hewson continues “It’s time to end this prurient charade, which has nothing to do with justice or the public interest. Adults and law-enforcement agencies must stop fetishising victimhood. Instead, we should focus on arming today’s youngsters with the savoir-faire and social skills to avoid drifting into compromising situations, and prosecute modern crime.”. It’s almost as though she’s claiming that with the right skills and knowledge sexual predators can be avoided – a common theme of victim-blaming. But as a barrister surely Ms Hewson knows that rape and sexual assault is never the fault of the victim? I agree that young people should be taught what is and isn’t acceptable in terms of sexual behaviour but that in no way means that assault can be avoided if one has the appropriate “social skills”.
Although Ms Hewson’s article has moments where it is interesting and thought-provoking it is also ill-considered and her employers, Hardwicke Chambers, have been quick to distance themselves from it. It is a shame that this article seems likely to overshadow her reputation as a passionate advocate for abortion rights and her opposition to the court-ordered treatment of pregnant women. I hope that Ms Hewson’s views aren’t widely shared among her fellow legal professionals; meanwhile I imagine there are few victims of sexual assault or rape who would want her in their courtroom.