If the CPS decides to prosecute, there are limited defences available. In the case of distributing or showing indecent photographs of children prohibited under the Protection of Children Act 1978, and possessing indecent photographs under the Criminal Justice Act 1988, alleged perpetrators have to demonstrate that:
- they had not seen the images and had no reason to suspect they were prohibited;
- or they had a “legitimate reason” for being in possession of them or showing or distributing them.
If the child in the photograph is over 16 and is the spouse or civil partner of the perpetrator, no offence under Section 1 of the Protection of Children Act has been committed. This includes making or taking an indecent photograph. The same is true for the offence of possessing indecent photographs under the Criminal Justice Act.
There is also an additional defence under the Criminal Justice Act that the photo was sent to the defendant without any prior request made by him or her, or on his or her behalf, and that the defendant did not keep it for an unreasonable time. There is very little information available on what amounts to an “unreasonable time”. CPS guidance states that this is a question that will be determined by juries on a case-by-case basis.
The leading case on the concept of “legitimate reason” (Atkins v Director of Public Prosecutions 2000) suggests that the defence applies only in very restricted circumstances, such as when it is necessary to possess the images to conduct forensic tests or for legitimate research. It also suggests that any court should approach such a defence with scepticism. The court in Atkins said that:
“The central question where the defence is legitimate research will be whether the defendant is essentially a person of unhealthy interests in possession of indecent photographs, or by contrast a genuine researcher with no alternative but to have this sort of unpleasant material in his possession. In other cases there will be other categories of legitimate reasons advanced. They will each have to be considered on their own facts.”
As stated above, to a certain extent those who could be considered to have a “legitimate reason” – such as artists and galleries – can rely on their right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the ECHR: the right to receive and impart opinions, information and ideas, including those which shock disturb and offend. That right is qualified by the need to protect the rights and freedoms of others (in this context, children), and a 2001 case (R v Smethurst 2002) found that the Protection of Children Act 1978 offence was compatible with Article 10 rights to free expression under the ECHR.
In the context of child protection, the rights of children not to be exploited and those of a young audience will be set against the right to freedom of expression. That means the police and courts are permitted in some circumstances to act in ways that will compromise the freedom of expression rights of individuals. Any decision they make will require these competing objectives to be balanced.