Bill Cosby Accusations – How does the law treat accusations of historical sexual abuse?

Bill Cosby Accusations – How does the law treat accusations of historical sexual abuse?

Legendary comedian Bill Cosby, has now been accused of sexual assault by 16 different women. 12 of these women claim Cosby drugged them before carrying out the assault and another says he attempted to drug her. Cosby and his lawyers have vigorously denied the accusations.


The accusations span the entirety of Cosby's career, from his early days in the mid 60's as the first black star of a network television show, to the mid 200o's where he was an established star in the entertainment industry and also an avid philanthropist and African American rights advocate.

However, dates of the Cosby accusations also span the generational change in public attitude towards sexual assault. Now, date rape and victim blaming culture is well understood and thus it may only be now that Cosby's alleged victims feel they are able to come forward – but is it too late in the eyes of the law?

Today at Unlock the Law we investigate how historic sexual abuse the police and the legal system treat cases.

How does the law treat historic sexual abuse allegation?

In the UK, sexual offences are treated differently than others such as personal injury or damages claim in the law. There is no time limit for making a formal complaint – it can even be brought decades after the incident occurred. Delay in reporting a sexual offence will not affect how seriously the police or the Crown Prosecution Service (the body who will prosecute the alleged abuser) treat or investigate your case and enforce the law.

When a complaint is made relating to an incident or multiple incidents over a period of time many years ago, the police will investigate the case. If there is evidence found to support the claim, the Crown prosecution service will prosecute the individual if they believe it to be in the public interest and there is a reasonable prospect of success.

The date when the incident or incidents occurred will affect the law that applies in terms of the crime committed. If the crime occurred before 1 May 2004 the Sexual Offences Act 1956, will apply. However, if it occurred after 1 May 2004 it will be prosecuted under the Sexual Offences Act 2003. Where it is difficult to tell when the incident occurred or which act will apply it is the older of the two, if it attracts a lesser maximum penalty.

The main difficult in historic sexual abuse cases is proof. Presumption of innocence and fairness are an integral part of the criminal justice system and must be upheld. This means, the prosecution must be able to prove that the offence was committed to a satisfactory level. This can be difficult as a result of what is known as corroboration. Corroboration means that there must be two pieces of evidence that support each other. This is particularly challenging in historic sexual abuse cases, as often there is only the story of the victim and the story of the accused.

Often, third party disclosure is required such a reports from social services or medical reports to assist the prosecutions case.

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