“Up-skirting”, the practice of taking a photo or video under a person’s clothes without their consent in order to capture images, is in the headlines again.
Earlier this month, the Justice Minister, Naomi Long, announced plans to bring forward proposals which will see the introduction into Northern Ireland law of a new specific offence of “up-skirting” in 2021. This follows recommendations from a Department of Justice consultation in April 2019 which, itself, coincided with the conviction of a teenage boy for taking pictures in school of two teachers – a case in which Thompsons NI Solicitors assisted the victims.
Up-skirting has been an explicit offence in Scotland since 2010. It became a specific offence in England & Wales in 2019 under the Voyeurism Act – 18 months after Gina Martin began her publicised campaign after she was targeted at a music festival.
Currently in Northern Ireland allegations of up-skirting can only be pursued in the criminal courts under ‘outraging public decency’ and / or ‘voyeurism’. The stringent criteria for those crimes is not a perfect fit for up-skirting so in many instances up-skirting goes unpunished. Potential victims in Northern Ireland will hope that a new statutory offence will act as a robust deterrent and lead to a higher prosecution rate for those determined to carry out the act.
However, critics of the England & Wales model argue that it is too restrictive because it only captures perpetrators who intend to obtain sexual gratification or inflict humiliation, distress or alarm upon the victim. Hence it fails to cover taking intimate images for purpose of financial gain or amusement.
Revenge Porn became a specific offence in Northern Ireland in 2016 but it too only extends to sharing images to cause distress, not amusement. So there is a gap to fill and it will be interesting to see how Northern Ireland sculpts its version of the up-skirting offence. But whatever its final form, introducing a distinct criminal offence in Northern Ireland for the first time is a seismic step in the right direction.