Belfast Telegraph

Our 'Sarah's Law' long overdue

Editor's Viewpoint

Many parents will welcome the introduction of new legislation which means that from today they can be told if someone who has contact with their children has a record of violent or sexual offences.

While there are many dangers to children in modern society, few concerns cause parents as much dread as the thought that their children could be subjected to a violent or sexual attack and that a person with a known history of such offences is living or working in their proximity.

The Child Protection Disclosure Scheme - Northern Ireland's version of Sarah's Law - will enable any parent or guardian with genuine concerns about the safety of their children to ask police if a person has a history of violent or sexual crimes against children.

In order to guard against spurious or ill-intentioned applications for such information, applicants will have to identify themselves and their children to police, and also acknowledge that they have a duty to use that information carefully and for the purposes of safeguarding their children.

Quite rightly police are concerned that previous offenders are not targeted by vigilante-style justice since the scourge of paramilitary kangaroo courts is still all too prevalent in this society. Those seeking and obtaining information about individuals must realise that they could end up in the dock if that information is misused in a way that puts the named individuals at risk of harm.

This newspaper has long campaigned for this type of legislation and it welcomes the fact that the law here will now be even stronger than that existing in England and Wales, which is concerned solely with offenders with a previous history of sexual offences.

However, it has taken an inordinately long time to introduce the legislation. Sarah's Law was first trialled in four areas of England and Wales in 2008 and fully introduced in the spring of 2011. It should not have taken another five years for Northern Ireland to come up with its own version.

After all, in 2014/15 27% (733) of all sex crimes reported to police in the province were against children aged 11 and under, with 1,516 such crimes committed against persons aged under 18. Of course, not all offences are carried out by previous offenders - many are committed by people known to the victim - but being aware of those with a propensity towards such crime is a welcome development.

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