Public perceptions of sentencing for sexual offences research has been published

The Scottish Sentencing Council has today published in-depth research into public perceptions of sentencing for sexual offences. The independently conducted research was carried out on the Council’s behalf by ScotCen Social Research. 

Through a series of focus groups and interviews, the research examined awareness and understanding of sexual offences among the public, views on the factors which should be taken into account when sentencing, and perceptions of current practice, including a sentencing exercise using a real world case.

The Council commissioned the research to help guide its work to promote understanding and awareness of sentencing and to inform its development of guidelines on sexual offences.

Key findings

The research found a lack of awareness of the offences created by the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009 and what they involve, and suggests there would be benefit in engaging with the public on the range and scope of sexual offences, particularly the offences introduced by the 2009 Act.

The research highlights the role of the media in influencing perceptions of sentencing and in raising awareness of sentencing and offending behaviour. While there was an overall perception that sentencing of sexual offences was too lenient, when members of the public gave a sentence in an exercise based on a real world case, their decision was similar to that of the judge. When told this, participants expressed surprise.

Participants acknowledged the need to maintain flexibility and judicial discretion in sentencing to allow the individual circumstances of the case to be taken into account. But they also said they found it difficult to understand why sentences for similar cases can vary, perceiving this as inconsistency.

In line with other such research carried out under the auspices of the Council, participants thought that greater transparency in sentencing is needed and that guidelines will provide consistency.

Members of the public also felt that the risk of reoffending and the protection of the public were important factors to consider during sentencing. While they had mixed views on the use of imprisonment for sexual offences, there was consensus that sentencing should address offending behaviour and that offenders should have access to support to aid rehabilitation.

There were differing views on how courts should take account of harm. Some were of the view that because the impact can differ from one victim or survivor to another, all sexual offences had the potential to be equally harmful; others felt that offences involving contact (such as rape and sexual assault) were more harmful than non-contact offences (such as voyeurism or sexual exposure).

Similarly there was no consensus on whether sentencing should take account of the personal circumstances of the offender and their remorse.

Importantly, survivors of sexual offences also contributed to the research, sharing their views on sentencing and related experiences of the criminal justice system. Survivors felt that greater account of the impact on victims of these offences should be taken into account and stated a need for greater support throughout the criminal justice process, including in relation to providing information about sentencing.

Survivors felt that improving timescales for sentencing, including the timely provision of pre-sentence reports, as well as for the wider criminal justice process would be helpful in addressing the distress that can be caused by uncertainty.

Some survivors spoke about their experience in producing a victim statement, noting that it was an emotionally challenging but worthwhile process, although they felt that additional support would be helpful. It was also suggested that additional supporting evidence, such as statements from medical professionals, should be taken into account in sentencing.

Lord Matthews, Senator member of the Council and member of the Sexual Offences Committee said:

“We would like to thank all those who took part in the study. We are especially grateful to the survivors who bravely shared their experiences of the criminal justice system and their views on sentencing. We will carefully consider the full findings of this and other research in development of the guidelines, which we hope will provide greater clarity and predictability for everyone. Where concerns are raised which fall outside of the remit of the Council, we will share these findings with the relevant organisations and government.

“This research echoes the findings of other studies which have been carried out relating to sentencing.  Namely that, when surveyed, a majority of people express the view that sentencing is lenient in Scotland.  However, when carrying out exercises based on real world scenarios, and asked to consider the matter in more detail, members of the public trend to choose sentences in line with judges.

“This report highlights the need for greater public information on sentencing and how sentences are arrived at. We hope that in part this will be addressed by sentencing guidelines, in particular the sentencing process guideline which has been submitted to the High Court for approval.  In addition to guidelines, we will consider what other work we can take forward, in conjunction with others, to increase public knowledge and awareness on sentencing for these offences.”


  1. In total, 26 people took part in the study: 20 members of the public participated in focus groups, 5 survivors of sexual offences were interviewed in small groups and 1 victim support worker was also interviewed. Focus group participants were aged between 17 and 71 years; 11 were male and 9 female. All survivors were women.
  1. The research was carried out by ScotCen Social Research and the report authors are  Hannah Biggs, Susan Reid, Kaushi Attygalle, Konstantina Vosnaki (ScotCen), Dr Rachel McPherson (University of Glasgow) and Professor Cyrus Tata (Strathclyde Centre for Law, Crime & Justice, Law, School, University of Strathclyde).
  2. The Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009 replaced and updated a number of common law sexual offences, placing them on a statutory footing. This included the creation of new statutory offences of rape, sexual assault, sexual coercion, communicating indecently, sexual exposure and voyeurism, among other things. It also provided a statutory definition of consent, including what does not constitute consent.