A judge’s work clothes don’t generally make him look like the most forward thinking kind of guy. When you have to wear a wig and robes every day, it’s easy to be seen as out of touch. For most members of the bench, however, this is a little bit unfair - beneath the seventeenth-century costume, they have at least one foot in the real world. Then you come across a judge like Nigel Peters and it makes the old-fashioned garb look all too appropriate.
This week, Peters decided that a 41-year-old man who pleaded guilty to a count of sexual activity with a 13-year-old girl could be spared jail because she was “predatory and egging you on”. Astonishingly, the judge was not the only person taking this prehistoric view. Even the prosecutor decided to tell the court that the victim was “predatory” and “sexually experienced”, as if this was somehow an excuse for the behaviour.
Neil Wilson, the defendant in question, could scarcely have seemed more deserving of a prison sentence. In almost all cases where there is any sexual activity with a child, the offender is sent to prison and the difference in age is one of the key factors that the Crown Prosecution Service recommends judges take into account when making their decision. Wilson not only knew that the girl in question was not 16, but he was also, at 41, more than three times her age. This was no hook up between a sixth-former and a 15 year old behind the back of the school bike sheds; this was a middle-aged man taking advantage of a young girl.
Nor did Wilson have an unblemished character. He was convicted of two counts of making extreme pornographic images after officers searching his home found photos and videos depicting child abuse, and 11 images “involving horses and dogs”. You wonder what more he’d have needed to do to be sent to prison.
It’s right that the Attorney-General is going to review the sentence and we have to hope that it will be increased on appeal. However, it’s the reasoning behind the decision that is most worrying. The attitude of the judge and the prosecutor seemed to work on the basis that victims of child abuse should be made to justify their own conduct.
Nobody who is under 16 can be complicit in their own abuse. The whole point is that they are unable to consent for themselves, so even if the victim believes it’s the best idea in the world to be hanging out with a middle-aged man with a penchant for storing images of bestiality, for good reason the law steps in to stop others from taking advantage of this immaturity.
More worrying, still, is the idea that a 13-year-old girl or boy could be labelled as “predatory” at all. As the NSPCC points out, victims of child sexual abuse often take part in risk-taking behaviour during adolescence, become sexually active at a young age or display age-inappropriate sexual behaviour. Meanwhile those who have been emotionally abused or with low self-esteem may see sexual activity with a means of proving their self-worth or securing the attention of an adult. All of these behaviours should be seen as symptoms of abuse, not invitations for the abuse to continue.
It may be relevant to sentencing if an abuser has used force in bringing about the sexual activity, but this is not the same as mitigating the act of an abuser by pointing the finger at the victim. There is only one predator in these situations – and we know exactly who that is.
Bobby Friedman is the author of Democracy Limited: How money and donations have corrupted British politics - published by Oneworld on 5 September, 2013