By Michelle Nwaesei, Content Development Executive, Central Law Training

The law is constantly evolving. The new upskirting offence illustrates the beauty of how societal activism and pressure drives legal change to suit the 21st century.

The UK Government recently made upskirting an offence, under the Voyeurism (Offences) Act, which came into force 12 April 2019 in England and Wales – but what is upskirting? Upskirting is described as the act of taking a sexually intrusive photograph under a person’s skirt/dress, without permission.

Upskirting has been an offence since 2010 in Scotland under the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009, so what took England and Wales so long? Legislation in this area was unclear. Previous victims of upskirting could only prosecute the offence under outraging public decency or as a crime of voyeurism under the Sexual Offences Act. Where the crime was previously reported, the police would authorise the images/videos to be deleted, but surprisingly no other prosecution was available. In fact, a report from British magazine GQ revealed that one in 10 men did not believe that upskirting was sexual harassment.

The significant element to this change in the law was that it was brought about by societal upset through an online campaign. Gina Martin campaigned on Care2Petitions for 18 months, gaining 111,063 signatures. Although the campaign started in the United Kingdom (UK) the campaign gained international attention with 59,090 supporters from outside of the UK, demonstrating the immense amount of support around the world. Gina started the campaign as a response to falling victim to the act of upskirting while attending a music festival in July 2018. She was shocked to find when she reported the incident to police that upskirting was not illegal. The campaign received widespread support from celebrities including Holly Willoughby and Dermot O’Leary as well as Wera Hobhouse, a Liberal Democrat politician.

Sir Christopher Chope’s (Conservative MP) early single-handed rejection of the Bill in the House of Commons in June 2018 received condemnation from MPs and the public. This led to Prime Minister Teresa May vowing that the government would push change to the law through parliament. The law was eventually passed. Speaking after the Bill was approved, Gina Martin expressed that “the result of all that hard work is that women and girls who needed this law changed are now being heard by those in power”. This encapsulates the real push in having citizens’ voices being heard to help the law mirror everyday modern life realities, especially the dangers of the social media era.

Those convicted of the offence can face up to a year in prison and/or a fine, with more serious convictions resulting in a sentence of up to two years and being added to the sex offenders’ register. Victims will also receive automatic protection, similar to that awarded to victims of other sexual offences. The new law has already successfully been used to prosecute, as a man was recently fined £2,000 for upskirting a woman at Victoria tube station.  

The campaign to make upskirting illegal demonstrates how ordinary people can influence legal evolution and resolve grey areas discovered in the law.  Gina Martin describes this as “politics and society at its best”. What else can be achieved through campaigning by normal people? Only time will tell, but the possibilities are endless!

Central Law Training is pleased to present the Upskirting and Stalking Protection Orders on-demand webinar, suitable for both prosecutors and defence advocates. This webinar, led by Olwen Davis, a deputy District Judge, will bring you up to speed on the latest developments in this area and describe how this new legislation will work in practice. To find out more visit our website: https://www.clt.co.uk/webinar/upskirting-and-stalking-protection-orders-webinar-preorder/