National Assembly fixes age of consent at 16
Stabroek News – October 28, 2005
By Andre Haynes
The National Assembly yesterday voted in favour of 16 as the new age of sexual consent, while MPs looked ahead towards the enactment of comprehensive laws to deal with sex crimes.
The Criminal Law Offences Bill (Age of Consent Bill) 2004 was carried through its third reading after the adoption of the Report of the Special Select Committee that was set up to review the proposed legislation just under a year ago. At the time the government was under fire for its failure to change the century-old law, which set the age of consent at 13. The criticism was sparked by a case before the court involving an adult man and his relationship with a 13-year-old girl.
Minister of Labour Dr. Dale Bisnauth, who chaired the Committee, told members of the house yesterday that despite considerable support in favour of age 18, the fact that 18 was also the age of majority was enough to sway the committee against it. He said that in many other countries there is a difference between the age of consent and the age of majority with the former being invariably lower. Additionally, he noted that 16 is in line with the age of consent in other Caricom countries, although not a condition that needed to be satisfied to be CSME ready, “but it may not be an insignificant point.” It should be noted that other countries, most notably Jamaica, have been revisiting their laws on this matter.
Bisnauth, in his address, reiterated the Committee’s suggestion that “early consideration be given to enacting a law or laws which will deal comprehensively with sexual offences.” He said this would be to ensure that young girls are protected from sexual predators. But he also cautioned against taking the new law as giving a licence for sexual adventures. He said, rather, it merely addresses statutory rape under the Criminal Law Offences Act. In fact, the Bill was re-titled the Criminal Law Offences Bill 2004.
Bisnauth’s sentiments were shared by his counterpart on the other side of the house, PNCR MP Clarissa Riehl, who told the house that she hoped for a complete revision of the laws, while also urging that there be a speedy move to enact legislation to treat sex crimes. Riehl noted that much of the legislation currently in places does not address men as the laws were not gender neutral and she said this ought to be addressed, especially given that there were so many criminal acts of homosexuality.
Riehl also spoke of the labour of the Committee, saying that it worked well, although she noted the disagreements among members, who had to be persuaded against 18 (PNCR MP Volda Lawrence) on the basis of the age of majority.
The GHRA and roughly over 100 other pro-18 organisations have been the biggest critics of this reasoning, and have called it merely a shallow excuse for the rejection of their proposal, given that the age of majority is prescribed for other activities, like buying property. These groups have consistently asked for an explanation beyond the obvious disparity between the age of consent and the age of majority but none has come.
The adoption of the report and the Third Reading of the Bill will see the amendments of Sections 69, 70 and 87 of the Criminal Law Offences Act. Under the new law, it is a misdemeanour carrying a five-year prison term for anyone who unlawfully and carnally knows any girl of, or above the age of 15 and under the age 16. However, there is a defence if the accused could prove that he had reasonable cause to believe that the girl was of or above the age of 16. Anyone who unlawfully and carnally knows any girl under the age of 15, whether or not he believes her to be of, or above the age, shall be guilty of a felony and liable to life imprisonment.
The Committee, in its report, said that anyone found guilty of permitting the defilement of a girl on his premises would be liable to a ten-year prison term based on Act 19 of 1990. It said one of the amendments proposed in the Bill had sought to reduce the penalty by five years. However, the Committee felt that the law should remain as is.
On another point, the Committee also explained that an amendment to increase the minimum age of marriage from under 16 to the age of 16 and 17 would have created a new problem for females who became pregnant at age 14, as she would be prevented from marrying if the amendment were enacted.
The Committee said that there were a number of noteworthy issues that arose during its deliberations, including the concerns about criminalizing underage sex, as well as the proposals for abridged penalties in these instances. The Committee accepted input from the public in the form of written and oral submissions and it also sought the opinions of secondary and community high school students who it thought would be affected by the change in the laws.