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The law on sexual offences in Ireland

Information

A range of sexual offences in Ireland are prohibited by law. The following information sets out the most important of those offences. The precise charge for these offences depends on all the circumstances of the case, the age of the victim and the evidence available. The current penalties for sex offences in Ireland include:

  • Imprisonment
  • Fines
  • Being placed on the Sex Offenders Register
  • Sex Offenders Orders
  • Post release supervision.

Sex offenders must tell certain prospective employers in Ireland that they have been convicted of such offences. Further information on this duty is set out in our document on Garda clearance for employees.

Rules

Rape

The crime of rape may be charged under the Criminal Law (Rape) Act 1981 or the Criminal Law (Rape) (Amendment) Act 1990. The circumstances of the case, age of the victim and evidence will decide which legislation will apply.

The maximum penalty in Ireland for a rape offence is life imprisonment. There are related offences under the law of attempted rape, and separately of aiding and abetting a rape. (That is, assisting another person to commit a rape).

Sexual Assault/Aggravated sexual assault

Section 2 of the Criminal Law (Rape) (Amendment) Act 1990 sets out the law in Ireland on sexual assault. A sexual assault is an indecent assault on a male or a female. The maximum sentence is 10 years imprisonment or 14 years if the victim is aged under 17 years.

Aggravated sexual assault is sexual assault involving serious violence or the threat of serious violence. In common with rape offences, the maximum sentence for aggravated sexual assault is life imprisonment.

Sexual offences relating to children

There is no specific offence in law of child sex abuse. A person may be charged with rape, sexual assault, aggravated sexual assault or with one of the specific offences relating to children. The law in this area changed significantly in 2006 – further information is set out below.

Statutory rape

The term statutory rape is not used in the legislation but it is the term that is commonly used for unlawful sexual contact with a person aged under 17 years. Until June 2006, charges for this offence were brought under the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 1935. In the case of CC v Ireland, the Attorney General and the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Supreme Court held that Section 1 of the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 1935 Act was unconstitutional. Read more about what happens when law is found to be unconstitutional here. View the judgement of the Supreme Court in the case of CC v Ireland here.

The effect of the Supreme Court decision is that Section 1 of the 1935 Act is no longer a part of the Act. The rest of the Act was not affected. A new Act, the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2006 (pdf) was passed to replace the unconstitutional provisions in the 1935 Act. It also repealed and replaced Section 2 of the 1935 Act. The original 1935 Act has now been amended many times.

Defilement of a child aged under 15 years

The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2006 makes it a criminal offence to engage or attempt to engage in a sexual act with a child under the age of 15 years. This is what is meant by the term ‘defilement’. The maximum sentence for this offence is life imprisonment.

A sexual act for the purposes of the law includes sexual intercourse and buggery between people who are not married to each other and any sexual act which could constitute aggravated sexual assault.

The 2006 Act provides that the accused may argue they honestly believed the child was aged 15 years or over. The court must then consider whether or not that belief was reasonable. It is not a defence to show that the child consented to the sexual act.

Defilement of a child aged under 17 years

Section 3 of the Criminal Law (Sex Offences) Act 2006 (pdf) as amended by Section 5 of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) (Amendment) Act 2007 (pdf) makes it a criminal offence to engage or attempt to engage in a sexual act with a child under 17 years. The maximum sentence is five years, ten years if the accused is a person in authority. A person in authority means:

  • A parent, step-parent, guardian, grandparent, uncle or aunt of the victim, or
  • any person acting in loco parentis (in place of parent or parents) to the victim, or
  • any person responsible for the education, supervision or welfare of the victim.

The maximum sentence is greater for a second or subsequent offence.

The accused may argue that he or she honestly believed that the child was aged 17 years or over. The court must then consider whether or not that belief was reasonable. It is not a defence to show that the child consented to the sexual act.

The consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions is required for any prosecution of a child under the age of 17 years for this offence. A person who is convicted of this offence and is not more than two years older than the victim is not subject to the requirements of the Sex Offenders Act 2001. This means they will not have their name placed on the Sex Offenders Register.

A girl aged under 17 years who has sexual intercourse may not be convicted of an offence on that ground alone.

Reckless endangerment of children

The Criminal Justice Act 2006 provides for a new offence of reckless endangerment of children. This came into effect on 1 August 2006.

This offence may be committed by a person who has authority or control over a child or an abuser and who intentionally or recklessly endangers a child by:

  • Causing or permitting any child to be placed or left in a situation which creates a substantial risk to the child of being a victim of serious harm or sexual abuse or
  • failing to take reasonable steps to protect a child from such a risk while knowing that the child is in such a situation.

This offence may be prosecuted only by the Director of Public Prosecutions. The penalty is a fine (no upper limit) and/or a maximum of 10 years imprisonment.

Incest

The term incest refers to sexual intercourse occurring between close relatives. Close relatives include a child, a sibling or a parent. This is a criminal offence and charges are brought under the Punishment of Incest Act 1908 as amended by the Criminal Law (Incest Proceedings) Act 1995.

There are no age limits. However, a girl under 17 years cannot be prosecuted for incest. The maximum sentence is life imprisonment for males and seven years for females.

Sexual Offences involving people with disabilities

There are specific provisions in Ireland for sexual offences involving people with disabilities. A person who engages in unlawful sexual activity with a person with a disability may, of course, be charged under any of the provisions described above. The specific provisions for people with disabilities are contained in Section 5 of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 1993.

This provides for the following specific offences:

  • Sexual intercourse or buggery with a mentally impaired person (other than a spouse); the maximum penalty is ten years imprisonment
  • Gross indecency by a male with a male who is mentally impaired; the maximum penalty is two years imprisonment.

Mentally impaired refers in law to a person suffering from a disorder of the mind, whether through mental disability or mental illness, which is of such a nature or degree as to render a person incapable of living an independent life or of guarding themselves against serious exploitation.

Child Trafficking and Pornography Act 1998

The Child Trafficking and Pornography Act 1998 ,which is amended by Section 6 of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) (Amendment) Act 2007 (pdf), deals with a number of offences involving children under the age of 17. These include:

  • Child trafficking and taking a child for sexual exploitation; the maximum penalty is life imprisonment,
  • Meeting a child for the purpose of sexual exploitation; the maximum penalty is 14 years imprisonment,
  • Allowing a child to be used for child pornography; the maximum penalty is a fine of up to €31,000 and/or 14 years imprisonment
  • Producing, distributing, printing or publishing child pornography; the maximum penalty for a summary offence is a class C fine and/or a year’s imprisonment; if charged on indictment, the maximum penalty is an unlimited fine and/or 14 years imprisonment. View further information on the censorship of video and telecoms recordings here.
  • Possession of child pornography; the maximum penalty for a summary offence is a class C fine and/or a year’s imprisonment; if charged on indictment, the maximum penalty is €6,350 and/or five years imprisonment.

Further information on the censorship of film, print, video and dvd recordings and measures to protect vulnerable people in Ireland is available here.

Employment of Sex Offenders

It is an offence in Ireland for a sex offender to apply for work or to perform a service (including state work or service) which involves having unsupervised access to, or contact with, children or mentally impaired people without telling the prospective employer or contractor that he/she is a sex offender. State work or service includes work done by civil servants, Gardai, Defence Forces, local authority and HSE staff.

See our document on Garda clearance for employees.

Page updated: 5 March 2014

Language

Gaeilge

Related Documents

  • Sex Offenders Register
    Those who are convicted of certain sexual offences are obliged to provide certain information to the Gardaí including the address at which they are living following their release from prison. This provision was introduced by the Sex Offenders Act 2001.
  • Sentencing at criminal trials in Ireland
    Where a court in Ireland has found you guilty of an offence or you have pleaded guilty, the judge will decide on your sentence. Read about the rules on sentencing of criminals in Ireland.
  • Types of sentences
    There are a range of sentences available to judges that can be imposed on someone found guilty of a criminal offence.

Contact Us

If you have a question relating to this topic you can contact the Citizens Information Phone Service on 0761 07 4000 (Monday to Friday, 9am to 8pm) or you can visit your local Citizens Information Centre.