Simplification of the Criminal Law: Kidnapping and Related Offences

Current project status

  • Initiation: Could include discussing scope and terms of reference with lead Government Department
  • Pre-consultation: Could include approaching interest groups and specialists, producing scoping and issues papers, finalising terms of project
  • Consultation: Likely to include consultation events and paper, making provisional proposals for comment
  • Policy development: Will include analysis of consultation responses. Could include further issues papers and consultation on draft Bill
  • Reported: Usually recommendations for law reform but can be advice to government, scoping report or other recommendations

This project is complete. We published our final report on 20 November 2014 and await a response from Government.

Kidnapping is an offence created by judges in the seventeenth century. The current definition is that kidnapping is an attack on or infringement of personal liberty, consisting of the taking or carrying away of one person by another, by force or fraud, without the consent of the person taken or carried away, and without lawful excuse.

This definition is problematic for at least the following reasons:

  • The elements of the offence overlap, and their relationship to one another is unclear.  For instance, it is unnecessary to have both a force or fraud requirement and a requirement of absence of consent.
  • The meaning of ‘deprivation of liberty’ is unclear.  For instance, does the loss of liberty have to occur while the victim is being taken or carried away, or is it sufficient if the victim is first taken to a place and then confined there?
  • The relationship between kidnapping and false imprisonment is poorly defined under current law.


On consultation we provisionally proposed that kidnapping and false imprisonment should be replaced by one or more offences set out in statute.

We raised the following questions for consultation:

  • Should there be one offence or two?
  • If there are to be two offences, should the distinction be between detaining and moving, or between simple and aggravated detention?
  • Should it be a defence that the abductor honestly believed that the victim consented, or should that belief be required to be reasonable?
  • Should the new offence or offences be made triable in a magistrates’ court as well as in the Crown Court?

Responses to the consultation favoured the retention of two distinct offences, but also the removal of the unnecessary overlap between the current law of kidnapping’s force or fraud and lack of consent elements.


Reform of kidnapping and false imprisonment

We provisionally proposed that the offences should be made triable in a magistrates’ court as well as in the Crown Court. Consultees disagreed, and on further statistical analysis it appeared that no significant number of kidnapping and false imprisonment cases result in sentences of less than 6 months’ imprisonment.  We therefore recommend that these offences remain triable in the Crown Court only, with the existing maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

In line with the model favoured by consultees, we recommend the creation of two distinct statutory offences to replace the existing common law.

We recommend that false imprisonment be replaced with a new statutory offence of unlawful detention (a label which we believe better captures the nature of the offence). The elements of the new offence would closely follow the existing common law.

The new statutory kidnapping offence would be somewhat narrower and more focussed that the existing common law offence.  Kidnapping would have fewer, more closely defined, elements and a clearer relationship with the offence of unlawful detention.  The new kidnapping offence would be committed where a person, D:

  1. without lawful authority or reasonable excuse;
  2. intentionally uses force or the threat of force;
  3. in order to take another person V, or otherwise cause them to move in his company.

Reform of sections 1 and 2 of the Child Abduction Act 1984

We also recommend changes to the offences under sections 1 and 2 of the Child Abduction Act 1984.

  1. We recommend the increase of the maximum sentences for these offences from 7 to 14 years’ imprisonment, in order to avoid undesirable inconsistency between the most serious instances of these offences and kidnapping offences of a comparable level of seriousness.
  2. We also recommend that the offence under section 1 be extended to cover cases of wrongful retention of a child abroad, in breach of the permission given by another parent (or other connected person) or the court. This extension would close the gap in the law highlighted in the case of R (Nicolaou) v Redbridge Magistrates’ Court.


Documents and downloads

Project details

Area of law

Criminal law


Professor David Ormerod QC