The Government will legislate to make it an offence to possess pornographic images depicting scenes of extreme sexual violence and other obscene material. It is already an offence to publish and distribute such material.
To be covered by the new offence, material would need to be pornographic, explicit and real or appearing to be real. These will be objective tests for a jury to decide. It must also involve intercourse or oral sex with an animal; sexual interference with a human corpse; or serious violence (meaning violence that appears to be life threatening or likely to result in serious, disabling injury).
The proposals were published yesterday as part of the Government's response to a consultation last August. The consultation paper noted at the time: "We are not aware of any western jurisdiction which prohibits simple possession of extreme material."
The material to be covered by the ban is already illegal to publish and distribute in the UK under the Obscene Publications Act (OPA) 1959 – but it is not illegal to view under current laws. The Government said its accessibility from abroad via the internet is increasing.
There will be defences where someone can prove he had a legitimate reason for having an offending image; where he had not seen it and did not know or suspect it to be illegal; and where it was sent to him unsolicited and he did not keep it for an unreasonable time.
The proposed offence outlines a maximum penalty of three years' imprisonment for possession of material depicting serious violence and a maximum penalty of two years' imprisonment for possession of material in the other categories to reflect the seriousness of the offences shown or depicted in the material.
The Government is also proposing that the maximum penalty for the offences of publication, distribution and possession for gain committed under the Obscene Publications Acts will be increased from three years to five years' imprisonment.
Home Office Minister Vernon Coaker said the proposals had the support of various organisations, including women's and children's groups and police forces. In addition, a petition signed by around 50,000 people objecting to extreme internet sites promoting violence against women in the name of sexual gratification was presented to Parliament.
"The vast majority of people find these forms of violent and extreme pornography deeply abhorrent," he said.
The petition presented to Parliament was started by Liz Longhurst after the brutal murder of her daughter. Thirty-one year-old Jane Longhurst, a special needs teacher, was raped and strangled with a pair of tights by a male acquaintance in 2003. Graham Coutts, an amateur musician, attacked her just hours after surfing the web to feed his alleged obsession with necrophilia and asphyxial sex. Coutts stored her naked body for 35 days before trying to burn it in woods. He was convicted in February 2004 and sentenced to a minimum of 30 years in prison.
The Government said it aims to legislate as soon as Parliamentary time allows. The new offence will apply to England and Wales, and plans are being made to extend it to Northern Ireland. The consultation last August was held jointly with the Scottish Executive which will announce its response in due course.