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Rape in English law

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Rape in English law

Rape is a statutory offence in England and Wales.


The offence is created by section 1 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003:

"Intentionally", s.1(1)(a)

See Intention (criminal law)

Penetration, s.1(1)(a) & (b)

See section 79(2).

Meaning of expressions relating to parts of the body

See sections 79(3) and (9)

Consent, s.1(1)(b) & (c) & (2)

This expression is defined by section 74. The evidential and conclusive presumptions created by sections 75 and 76 apply to this offence (s.1(3)). They must be read with section 77.


A man or woman assisting another man or woman commit a rape can be prosecuted for the crime as an accessory.[1]

Mode of trial

Rape is an indictable-only offence.[2]


A person guilty of rape is liable on conviction to imprisonment for life or for any shorter term.[3]

For further information, see the Crown Prosecution Service sentencing manual

Relevant cases

  • R v Billam (1986) 8 Cr App R (S) 48
  • R v Millberry [2002] EWCA Crim 2891, [2003] Crim LR 207, [2003] 2 Cr App R (S) 31, [2003] 2 All ER 939, [2003] 2 Cr App R (S) 31, [2003] 1 WLR 546, [2003] 1 Cr App R 25.
  • R v Corran and others [2005] 2 Cr App R (S) 73, [2005] 2 Cr App R (S)73, [2005] EWCA Crim 192
  • R v Abokar Ahmed Ismail [2005] 2 Cr App R (S) 88
  • A-Gs Reference No. 86 of 2005 (Christopher James S.) 2 Cr App R(S)

In R v Millberry, the Court of Appeal held that "there are, broadly, three dimensions to consider in assessing the gravity of an individual offence of rape. The first is the degree of harm to the victim; the second is the level of culpability of the offender; and the third is the level of risk posed by the offender to society." Subsequently, the court held in Attorney General's Reference (Nos. 91, 119, 120 of 2002) that these three dimensions can be applied to sentencing for other categories of sexual offences.

Rape of a child under 13

This is a statutory offence created by section 5 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003.

Any consent of the complainant is of no relevance if he or she is under the age of thirteen.

Civil liability

Loss of service

No person is liable in tort under the law of England and Wales-

  • to a parent (or person standing in place of a parent) on the ground only of his having deprived the parent (or other person) of the services of his or her child by raping that child;[4] or
  • on the ground only of having deprived another of the services of his female servant by raping her.[5]


Rape was an offence under the common law of England and was classified as a felony.

The common law defined rape as "the sodomy). The crime of rape was unique in the respect that it focused on the victim's state of mind and actions in addition to that of the defendant. The victim was required to prove a continued state of physical resistance, and consent was conclusively presumed when a man had intercourse with his wife. "One of the most oft-quoted passages in our jurisprudence" on the subject of rape is by Lord Chief Justice Sir Matthew Hale from the 17th century, " an accusation easily to be made and hard to be proved, and harder to be defended by the party accused, tho never so innocent."[6] Lord Hale is also the origin of the remark, "In a rape case it is the victim, not the defendant, who is on trial." However, as noted by Sir William Blackstone in his Commentaries on the Laws of England, by 1769 the common law had recognized that even a prostitute could suffer rape if she had not consented to the act.[7]

Section 16 of the Offences against the Person Act 1828 read as follows:

And be it enacted, That every Person convicted of the Crime of Rape shall suffer Death as a Felon

Here, "death as a felon" means death by hanging and confiscation of the land and good, which were pronounced against felons, as opposed to the quartering which befalled on traitors. "Thus it was assumed that the definition of rape was so well understood and established by the common law of England that a statutory definition was unnecessary."[8] The death penalty for rape was abolished by section 3 of the Substitution of Punishments for Death Act 1841 which substituted transportation for life. Transportation was abolished by the Penal Servitude Act 1857, which substituted penal servitude for life. These sections were replaced by section 48 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861. Penal Servitude was abolished by the Criminal Justice Act 1948, which substituted imprisonment for life. These sections were replaced by sections 1(1) and 37(3) of, and paragraph 1(a) of the Second Schedule to the Sexual Offences Act 1956.

In January 1982, the Government accepted an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill the effect of which, if enacted, would be to compel judges to sentence men convicted of rape to imprisonment. This followed a case earlier that month in which John Allen, 33, businessman and convicted of raping a 17-years-old hitchhiker, had been fined £2,000 by Judge Bernard Richard, who alleged the victim's "contributory negligence"[9][10]

The final paragraph of section 4 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 provided that it was rape for a man to have carnal knowledge of a married woman by impersonating her husband. This provision was replaced by section 1(2) of the Sexual Offences Act 1956.

Rape ceased to be a felony on 1 January 1968 as a result of the abolition of the distinction between felony and misdemeanour by the Criminal Law Act 1967.

The definition of rape at common law was discussed in DPP v. Morgan [1976] AC 182, [1975] 2 WLR 913, [1975] 2 All ER 347, 61 Cr App R 136, [1975] Crim LR 717, HL.

A statutory definition of "rape" was provided by section 1 of the [11]

It read:

(1)For the purposes of section 1 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956 (which relates to rape) a man commits rape if—
(a)he has unlawful sexual intercourse with a woman who at the time of the intercourse does not consent to it; and
(b)at that time he knows that she does not consent to the intercourse or he is reckless as to whether she consents to it;

and references to rape in other enactments (including the following provisions of this Act) shall be construed accordingly.

In R v R[12][13] it was held that the word "unlawful" in that section did not exclude "marital rape" (see Marital rape#Ending the exemption in England and Wales).

Section 1 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956 was substituted on the 3 November 1994 by section 142 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, providing a new and broader definition:

The effect of this was to make what is termed male rape amount to the offence rape instead of (where it took place in private and both parties were over 18 - s.12(1A) as substituted) or in addition to (in all other cases) the offence of buggery. The first person to be convicted under the wider definition (for attempted rape) was Andrew Richards on 9 June 1995.[14] The word "unlawful" did not appear in this section because of R v R.

That section was replaced on 1 May 2004 by section 1 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, providing a still broader definition. References to vaginal or anal sexual intercourse were replaced by references to penile penetration of the vagina, anus or mouth. It also altered the requirements of the defence of mistaken belief in consent so that one's belief must be now both genuine and reasonable. Presumptions against that belief being reasonably held also now apply when violence is used or feared, the complainant is unconscious, unlawfully detained, drugged, or is by reason of disability unable to communicate a lack of consent. The change in this belief test from the old subjective test (what the defendant thought, reasonably or unreasonably) to an objective test was the subject of some debate (see [1] and [2]), as it permits a man to be convicted of rape if he thought a person was consenting, were the circumstances thought by a jury to be unreasonable.


At common law a boy under the age of fourteen years could not commit rape as a principal offender[15] as he was irrebutably presumed to be incapable of sexual intercourse. This rule was abolished by section 1 of the Sexual Offences Act 1993. A boy under the age of fourteen years could commit rape as an accomplice.[16]

It was never decided whether a boy under fourteen could be convicted of attempting to commit rape as a principal, rather than an accomplice, if he attempted to have sexual intercourse or actually succeeded in doing so. The reported dicta did not agree on this point.[17]

A woman could not commit rape as a principal offender, by the nature of the offence, but she could commit rape as an accomplice.[18]


Section 37(3) of, and paragraph 1(b) of the Second Schedule to, the Sexual Offences Act 1956 provided that a person guilty of an attempt to commit rape was liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding seven years. Attempted rape became a statutory offence under section 1(1) of the Criminal Attempts Act 1981. But the maximum penalty was not affected by this.[19] The maximum penalty for attempted rape was increased to imprisonment for life by sections 3(1) and (2) of the Sexual Offences Act 1985.

In the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1976, the expression "a rape offence" included:[20]

  • attempted rape
  • aiding, abetting, counselling and procuring attempted rape


Special provision was made in relation to rape by sections 109(3)(a) and 111(6) of the Criminal Justice Act 1988.

See also


  • Crown Prosecution Service Rape Manual
  1. ^ DPP v K and B [1997] 1 Cr App R 36
  2. ^
  3. ^ The Sexual Offences Act 2003, section 1(4).
  4. ^ The Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1970, section 5(b)
  5. ^ The Administration of Justice Act 1982, section 2(c)(ii)
  6. ^ a b Rape - Overview; Act and Mental State, Wayne R. LaFave Professor of Law, University of Illinois, "Substantive Criminal Law" 752-756 (3d ed. 2000)
  7. ^ 'Maryland v. Baby', 946 A.2d 463 (Md. 2007).
  8. ^ (1907) 97 Southwestern Reporter 668 [3], (1907) 79 Arkansas Reports 303 [4], 9 Annotated Cases, American and English 412 [5].
  9. ^ Moseley, Ray (January 10, 1982). "Britons Attack Light Sentence In Hitchhiker Rape Case". Lakeland Ledger. Retrieved October 27, 2013. 
  10. ^ Bell, Patricia (January 14, 1982). "Negligence And A Fine For Rape". The Glasgow Herald. Retrieved October 27, 2013. 
  11. ^ Archbold Criminal Pleading, Evidence and Practice, 1999, paragraph 20-4 at page 1666
  12. ^ "[1991] UKHL 12".  
  13. ^ [1992] 1 AC 599, [1991] 3 WLR 767, [1991] 4 All ER 481, (1991) 135 SJLB 181, [1992] 1 FZR 217, (1991) 155 JP 989, (1992) 94 Cr App R 216, [1992] Fam Law 108, [1992] Crim LR 207, (1991) 155 JPN 752, (1991) 141 NLJ 1481, [1991] UKHL 12, (1991) The Times, 24 October 1991, (1991) The Independent, 24 October 1991, (1991) The Guardian, 30 October 1991, HL, affirming [1991] 2 WLR 1065, [1991] 2 All ER 257, (1991) 135 SJ 384, (1991) 93 Cr App R 1, (1991) 155 JP 373, [1991] Crim LR 475, (1991) 155 JPN 236, (1991) 141 NLJ 383, (1991) The Times, 15 March 1991, (1991) The Independent, 15 March 1991, (1991) The Guardian, 15 March 1991, CA, affirming [1991] 1 All ER 747
  14. ^ "1995: First man jailed for male rape". BBC News. 9 June 1995. 
  15. ^ R v. Phillips (1839) 8 C & P 736
  16. ^ R v. Eldershaw (1828) 3 C & P 396
  17. ^ The dicta in question are R v. Waite [1892] 2 QB 600, 61 LJMC 187 and R v. Williams [1893] 1 QB 320, 62 LJMC 69
  18. ^ R v. Ram and Ram (1893) 17 Cox CC 609
  19. ^ The Criminal Attempts Act 1981, section 4(5)(a)
  20. ^ The Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1976, section 7(2); as amended by the Criminal Justice Act 1988, sections 158(1) and (6)

External links

  • Rape Crisis (England and Wales)
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