Modern Slavery – Government report 2019, the offences and consequences

25th October 2019 Criminal Defence

This week the tragic news report that 39 bodies had been found within a lorry in Essex emerged has resulted in two men being held on suspicion of manslaughter and conspiracy to traffic people. However, the shocking reports are likely to increase as the Government recently reported that human trafficking and modern slavery is increasing worldwide.

It was reported that the lorry had arrived from Belgium, arriving on the River Thames before docking at Thurrock industrial park in Essex. Although investigations are ongoing it is suspected that the discovery is indicative of the involvement of an Organised Crime Group. In response to the tragedy the Prime Minister commented that “all traders in human being should be hunted down and brought to justice.” The events coincide with the recently published UK Annual Report on Modern Slavery.

What is “Modern Slavery?”

The Modern Slavery Act 2015 consolidated the criminal offences which are categorised as ‘modern slavery’. Sections 1 and 2 of the 2015 Act sets out the two main offences of ‘Slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour’ and ‘Human trafficking.’

Modern slavery is a complex crime that is difficult to identify, for the varied forms that it can take, including forced labour, sexual exploitation, child trafficking, drugs offences and domestic exploitation. Offences of human trafficking may also be committed in multiple ways, for example through facilitating, recruiting, receiving or transferring control of a trafficked individual. Allegations can be made against organisations or individuals, or those who might have played legitimate roles within a complicated series of events.

As well as the involvement of large organisations and networks, the investigations into such offences ordinarily involve cross-border elements.  Offences are often hidden and difficult to determine due to victims not identifying themselves as victims (they may have consented or paid for transportation but then be subject to slavery during travel or upon arrival). However, the Modern Slavery Act specifically sets out that consent of a person does not preclude a determination that they are being held in slavery, or in the case of human trafficking it is irrelevant whether the victim consents to the travel.

The scope of the Modern Slavery Act is far reaching and a UK nation commits an offence regardless of where in the world the arranging or facilitating of slavery or human trafficking takes place. Offences can also be committed by those who ‘aid and abet’ others, for example by supplying false documents to facilitate travel.

What does the 2019 Report reveal?

The UK’s recent Modern Slavery Report highlights the ever increasing number of modern slavery offences committed in the UK and across the globe. The report is aimed at identifying the action being taken by the UK Government to end modern slavery and human trafficking. The number of modern slavery crimes recorded in England and Wales is stated to have increased by 49%. Arguably, such figures do not accurately reflect the prevalence of the largely hidden and undetected criminal activity.  

The report specifically highlight the Government’s aim of prosecuting and disrupting individuals and groups responsible for modern slavery. Trafficking groups are being targeted and it is stated that there are currently over 1,400 active investigations into modern slavery groups. The Government incentive has included training of officers on identifying modern slavery and improving operational intelligence. In addition the training of Crown prosecutors who are responsible for the prosecution of modern slavery cases that culminate in criminal proceedings.

Recent Government training following the launch of the “Hidden in Plain Sight” campaign has focused on education of professionals in healthcare, financial and recruitment sectors to identify the signs of exploitation. The increased vigilance towards modern slavery is designed to alert those in both the public and private sectors, to make it increasingly difficult for perpetrators of the crime to succeed. This is in addition to section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act which already requires certain commercial organisations to publish the measures taken to prevent modern slavery in their operations.

In summary, the recorded crimes of modern slavery and police operations in response to modern slavery have both significantly increased in tandem. The recent reports sets out the Government’s commitment to ‘working at full speed’ to implement reform and to tackle modern slavery through the criminal justice system.


If an individual is charged and convicted of an offence under the Modern Slavery Act 2015, often within a larger group, the consequences are severe. A defendant who is charged with offences under the Modern Slavery Act may also find that they are charged with other offences, depending upon the surrounding circumstances, including false imprisonment, fraud, blackmail, assault and sexual offences.  

Anyone who is subject of investigations into modern slavery offences or faced with criminal proceedings must immediately seek expert legal advice. Consideration must be given, amongst other matters, to the knowledge of the alleged perpetrators at the time. In brief terms, the Act sets out that an individual must ‘know or ought to know’ that a person is held in slavery, or ‘know or ought to know’ that the person is exploited during or after travel. Detailed consideration of all of the circumstances of the allegations are therefore fundamental. Potential defences which can be raised in response to allegations of slavery must be considered, including services exacted in emergency situation or as part of civic obligations.

Defendants who are convicted of offences of modern slavery can receive custodial sentences ranging between 12 moths and a life sentence, dependent upon the circumstances of the offences charged. An investigation and criminal proceedings relating to offences of modern slavery are always incredibly serious and expert legal advice must be sought.

Individuals convicted of such offences will often find that they are subject of Confiscation proceedings, due to the inextricably linked financial element of human trafficking and slavery. In addition, a defendant may be made subject of a ‘Slavery and trafficking Prevention Order’ which prohibits a defendant from doing anything as set out within the Order. This will often prohibit foreign travel and cases may also involve deportation or repatriation orders against individuals.

If you are arrested or charged in connection with a modern slavery offence or an associated offence, robust legal representation from the earliest stage is essential. For further information about the comprehensive service our lawyers can offer if you are concerned about an arrest or proceedings in respect of modern slavery, the author of this blog, Catherine O’Rourke can be contacted on 0845 872 6666 and

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Catherine O'Rourke is an Associate Solicitor located in Manchester in our Business Crime & Regulation department

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