Get In Touch

New Guidance issued by CPS about childlike sex dolls

Importation of Indecent or Obscene Articles

The CPS today issued new guidance to help bring charges against importers and sellers of child sex dolls. Since 2016 a total of 230 suspected child sex dolls have been seized by the UK Border Force. These items are then referred the police for further investigation. This surge in the number of seizures has led children’s charities and the National Crime Agency to call for tough criminal enforcement against the obscene objects, which are manufactured in a way that enables sex acts to be performed on them.

In the absence of new legislation, the authorities have turned to old law in order to prosecute importation of these dolls. They have relied upon to the Customs and Excise Management Act 1979 and the Customs Consolidation Act 1876.

The question is whether the current statutory framework seeking to criminalise this behaviour is fit for purpose, or whether there is a lacunae in the law.

A Gap in the Law?

There is indeed such a ‘gap in the law’ and it arises because it is not actually illegal to possess a childlike sex doll in England and Wales. The Crown Prosecution Service has moved to address this as best it can. In June 2017, in the ‘first case of its kind in the UK’, a man was convicted of importing a child sex doll. He had purchased the item online and it was shipped from Hong Kong, however it was then seized en route at East Midlands Airport and he was arrested. He was ultimately sentenced to two years and eight months’ imprisonment for his offending.

The Law

The importation offence itself is contrary to section 50(3) of the Customs and Excise Management Act 1979. This states that it is an offence for a person to import any goods contrary to any prohibition, with the intention to evade that prohibition. It is an either-way offence, so can be dealt with in the Magistrates’ Court or the Crown Court, and it carries a maximum sentence of seven years.

Where does it say that a childlike sex doll is prohibited? Section 42 of the Customs Consolidation Act 1876 says:

“The goods enumerated and described in the following table of prohibitions and restrictions inwards are hereby prohibited to be imported or brought into the United Kingdom.”

The ‘table of prohibition’ is as follows:

“Indecent or obscene prints, paintings, photographs, books, cards, lithographic or other engravings, or any other indecent or obscene articles.”

It is for the Prosecution to prove that the Defendant either imported the item or was concerned in its importation.

The point as to whether or not a childlike sex doll is an ‘obscene’ or ‘indecent’ item was recently challenged at Canterbury Crown Court. In that case, lawyers for the Defendant had argued the doll was not covered by the law. This may have been a point for the jury to consider, however HHJ James dismissed the argument, saying “any right-thinking person” would find such a doll obscene. Given the nature and purpose of these objects, it is difficult to argue with his decision.

Sentencing Guidelines

There are no sentencing guidelines for this offence. The maximum sentence is seven years. The reported cases so far seem to be attracting sentences of around two years, although clearly each case must be judged on its individual facts.

Further Thoughts

As it stands, possession of a childlike sex doll on its own is not an offence. There must be proof of importation. If the item was manufactured or warehoused in the UK prior to purchase, the purchaser has not committed an offence. Considering the level of press that this is now receiving, we can expect Parliament to address this in the very near future.

On a final note; it occurs to me that while possession of such an item is not illegal, a photograph of one could be. If the doll is, for example, photographed naked it could be argued that that photograph then constitutes a ‘pseudo’ indecent image of under the Protection of Children Act 1978. The CPS have suggested that they will utilise the Obscene Publications Act 1959 to tackle the sale and distribution of the dolls, but arguably either could apply. It still raises the issue that new legislation is clearly required.

Alex Chapman is a solicitor at Hodge Jones and Allen solicitors. He specialises in the areas of serious and complex crime as well as sexual offences.