Sexual offences against children: An exploration of attrition in the Northern Ireland criminal justice system

Lisa Bunting*

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    32 Citations (Scopus)


    Objective: This paper uses data provided by the Police Service for Northern Ireland (PSNI) to compare the characteristics and outcomes of reported sexual offences involving child and adult victims and explore the factors associated with case outcomes.
    Method: PSNI provided data on 8,789 sexual offences recorded between April 2001 and March 2006. Case outcomes were based on whether a case was recorded by police as having sufficient evidence to summons, charge, or caution an offender (detected). Where an offender was summonsed, charged, or cautioned, this is classified as detection with a formal sanction. A case can also be classified as "detected" without a formal sanction. The analysis focused on two key categories of detection without formal sanction: cases in which the police deem there to be sufficient evidence to charge an offender but took no further action because the victim did not wish to prosecute, or because the police or the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) decided that no useful purpose would be served by proceeding.
    Results: The analysis confirmed that the characteristics of recorded sexual offences involving adult and child victims vary significantly according to gender, offence type, the timing of report and victim-offender relationship. Almost half of child sex abuse cases are not detected by police and a quarter do not proceed through the criminal justice system because either the victim declines to prosecute or the Police/PPS decide not to proceed. Only one in five child cases involved detection with a formal sanction. Child groups with lower detection with formal sanction rates included children under 5, teenagers, those who do not report when the abuse occurs but disclose at a later date; and those who experience abuse at the hands of peers and adults known to them but not related. The analysis also highlighted variation in formal sanction rates depending on where the offence was reported.
    Conclusions: Consideration needs to be given to improving the criminal justice response to specific child groups as well as monitoring detection rates in different police areas in order to address potential practice variation.
    Practice implications: Consideration needs to be given to improving the professional response in relation to with particularly lower detection with formal sanction rates. There is also a need to monitor case outcomes to ensure that child victims in different areas receive a similar service.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1109-1118
    Number of pages10
    JournalChild abuse & neglect
    Issue number12
    Publication statusPublished - Dec 2008


    • Child sexual abuse
    • Sexual offences
    • Conviction rate
    • Attrition
    • Child maltreatment
    • Criminal justice system


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