The provisions, which are commonly referred to as ‘Romeo and Juliet laws’, recognise under age, consensual, sexual activity that occurs within peer relationships.
The purpose of a Romeo and Juliet law is to prevent a sexual act that occurred between individuals who are just a few years apart in age being considered a criminal offence.
The proposed Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill 2015 will allow a person who is charged with engaging in a sexual act with a person aged between 15 and 17 years old to rely on a “proximity of age” defence.
The age difference must be no more than two years.
Speaking at the Children’s Rights Alliance Seminar today, Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald said:
Currently under Irish law, in the case where the prosecution of a person under the age of 17 is sought for such an act, the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) is required.In making this provision, the criminal law can accommodate, where necessary, normal adolescent behaviour.
A girl under the age of 17 who has sexual intercourse may not be convicted of an offence.
The new Bill, which will be debated over two days in the Dáil this week, also strengthens Ireland’s laws on grooming a child for sexual abuse.
This includes criminalising any communication with a child on the internet, mobile phone or social media for sexual exploitation through technology.
It will also be illegal to send sexually explicit or pornographic material to a child.
At present images of child pornography must be downloaded to be an offence but the Bill criminalises viewing of such material alone.
“A person who causes a child to watch another person engaging in sexual activity or causes a child to look at images of persons engaging in such activity – again with the intention of corrupting or depraving that child – shall be guilty of an offence… There can be no loopholes,” said the minister.
The Bill also deals with issues such as child prostitution and trafficking.
Certain provisions relating to a child giving evidence in court are also included, which allows children to give evidence behind a screen.
However, the minister acknowledges the Bill could be strengthened further by ensuring that child witnesses only have to give evidence through communication technologies, such as video link.
The minister said she plans to make further amendments to the Bill which will clarify the protection of counselling notes, made between patient and counsellor.
Fitzgerald said the new Bill brings Irish legislation “up to date”.
“I would like to see it in place by the end of this year,” she said.