Indefinite inclusion on the Sexual Offences Register – R and Thompson v Secretary of State for the Home Department
In R and Thompson v Secretary of State for the Home Department the UK Supreme Court upheld the decisions of the Divisional Court and the Court of Appeal that inclusion on the Sexual Offences Register for the duration of an offender’s life was in breach of the ECHR. Statutory notification requirements for sex offenders were first introduced in the UK by section 1(3) of the Sex Offenders Act 1997, later amended by the Criminal Justice and Courts Services Act 2000. These provisions were repealed, and now, section 82 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 imposes a duty on anyone sentenced to 30 months’ imprisonment or more for a sexual offence to notify the police of where they live and of any travel abroad. There is no right to a review of these notification requirements, and they endure for “an indefinite period”, as the Act terms it, which is essentially the remainder of a person’s life.
The respondents, R and Thompson, sought judicial review, contending that such absence of a right of review breached their right to privacy protected by Article 8 of the ECHR. In the Supreme Court, Lord Phillips emphasised that the core of the case was whether the interference with offenders’ Article 8 rights is proportionate, given the legitimate aims of the prevention of crime and the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. He focused on three questions: “(i) What is the extent of the interference with article 8 rights? (ii) How valuable are the notification requirements in achieving the legitimate aims? and (iii) To what extent would that value be eroded if the notification requirements were made subject to review?” (para. 41).
He acknowledged the necessity for the authorities to be aware of the location of persons convicted of sexual offences that are being actively managed or supervised, noting that this level of supervision is determined, in part, by the risk of reoffending they pose (para. 45). When a person is subject to lifetime notification requirements but no longer poses any significant risk of committing further sexual offences and this is demonstrably the case, Lord Philips felt it would be pointless to maintain notification requirements given the incursions on Article 8, and indeed from a pragmatic sense felt it overburdened the responsible authorities (para. 51). This is an interesting and logical mix of principled and practical argument. Lord Phillips, at para. 57, concluded that “there must be some circumstances in which an appropriate tribunal could reliably conclude that the risk of an individual carrying out a further sexual offence can be discounted to the extent that continuance of notification requirements is unjustified.” He emphasised the viability of review in other jurisdictions, including Ireland, and noted that “This does not suggest that the review exercise is not practicable.”
In Ireland, s 8(3)(a) of the Sex Offenders Act 2001 requires notification for “an indefinite duration” if the sentence imposed on the person in respect of the offence concerned is one of imprisonment for life or for more than two years, but s 11(1) allows for a court application to discharge this obligation on the ground that the interests of the common good are no longer served by his or her continuing to be subject to them. However, such an application cannot be made before the expiration of ten years from the date of the person’s release from prison.
Despite some predictable media coverage (see the Sun, “Rapists win new legal rights”), the decision is narrow in scope, and concerns the lack of review only rather than compromising the legitimacy or legality of the Register itself. Indeed, Lord Rodger emphasised that he saw “no basis for saying that, in themselves, the notification requirements, including those relating to travel, are a disproportionate interference with the offenders’ article 8 rights to respect for their family life, having regard to the important and legitimate aim of preventing sexual offending” (para. 64).