The Russell Brand Scandal: Does the UK need to alter the age of consent?

In light of Channel 4’s recently aired ‘Dispatches’ documentary which saw a number of women make allegations against Russel Brand, there are calls from the public to amend the age of consent in the UK. Here, McAlister Family Law’s Eleanor Drury explores at what a change in the law may look like.

Channel 4’s ‘Dispatches’ documentary, saw a number of women make allegations of rape, sexual assault and emotional abuse against comedian and online personality Russell Brand, including one allegation from a woman going by the name of Alice, who discloses that she first engaged in a sexual relationship with Brand aged just 16 whilst he was in his 30’s, there are calls from the public to amend the age of consent in the UK in order to protect teenagers from engaging in unhealthy and potentially dangerous relationships with older individuals.

At present, the legal age of consent in the UK is 16. This was introduced by virtue of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, to decriminalise 16 year olds who chose to engage in a sexual relationship with their peers. Despite English Law viewing anybody aged under 18 as a child, the law surrounding consent does not reflect this nor mirror the lack of autonomy given to 16 year olds in other areas such as the legal drinking, marriage, or voting age. Perhaps legislators failed to anticipate that the current law would allow for situations whereby children are able to consent to sex with adults double their age, where there is undoubtedly huge differences in status and significant power imbalances.

In the documentary, ‘Alice’ describes how Russell Brand would send cars to collect her from school and take her to his home where the pair would have sex. She claims that he became increasingly controlling, encouraging her to lie to her family and friends about their relationship and even sexually assaulted her by removing a condom without her knowledge. Research indicates that 16% of teenage girls with older boyfriends experience severe physical violence, compared to 6% of girls in a relationship with a partner of the same age. Naturally teenagers, by virtue of their age, are vulnerable and more likely to be targeted and manipulated by older individuals.

Any amendments to the law would need to be considered on a practical basis. Whilst some people are calling for it to be made illegal for anyone older than 21 to have sex with those aged between 16-18, this is arguably too restrictive and would create situations whereby a 20 year old could have a legal relationship one day, then the following day turn 21 and be open to punishment from the law. Perhaps a more workable solution would be to implement barriers within the law whereby 16 & 17 year olds can only consent to sex with somebody who is within 5 years of their age.

Age of consent varies around the world with some countries such as India, Turkey and Uganda setting 18 as the age in which a person can legally consent. In South Korea and Nepal, the age of consent is even higher; set at 20.

Whilst it is important to note that the age of consent across the world varies to reflect the traditions, religion, culture, and history of a particular country, it certainly interesting to consider if, and how, the UK might decide to vary legislation, particularly as the ‘Me Too’ movement continues to gain momentum.

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  • Eleanor Drury

    Trainee Solicitor