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“Online abuse” – Improving legal protection of victims

Online abuse and harassment is a blight on modern society.  The law has been accused of failing to provide adequate remedies to victims and lagging behind technology.  However, further legal developments are being discussed to strengthen victims’ rights.

On 1 November 2018, the Law Commission proposed reforms to the law designed to protect victims from online and social media-based abuse.

The Law Commission was critical of the ability of the current criminal law to protect people harmed by a range of online behaviour including receiving abusive or offensive communications, repeated unsolicited communication using electronic means, misuse of private images, and publication of false information about the victim.

The Law Commission recognised that there are often practical barriers to enforcement of the criminal law in this context, including the limited resources that law enforcement agencies and prosecutors have available to pursue abusive online communications, and a toxic cultural tolerance of online abuse. This latter feature means that even when reported, abuse is not always treated as seriously as offline conduct; and the difficult balance that must be struck between protecting individuals and from harm, and maintaining the right to freedom of expression.

The Law Commission proposed:

  • Reform and consolidation of existing criminal laws dealing with offensive and abusive communications online.
  • A specific review considering how the law can more effectively protect victims who are subject to a campaign of online harassment.
  • A review of how effectively the criminal law protects personal privacy online.

What are the next steps? The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) will now analyse the Law Commission’s report and decide how the criminal law can be improved to tackle online abuse.

It is reassuring to note that the Law Commission has looked at this important issue and made proposals for reform. The increase in the use of the internet and social media means that perpetrators of online abuse are able to identify and contact victims with ease. The potential severity of the impact of online abuse on victims needs to be better recognised and addressed.

Victims of online abuse often have legal remedies available to them either via the police and criminal courts or the civil courts (or, potentially, both!) under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 (“PHA”).

Other legislation regulating online communication can also provide assistance to victims.

The PHA has been amended on a couple of occasions over the years since it was first enacted. However, the law needs to be reviewed on a regular basis to ensure that it is fit for purpose and is able to respond to changes in technology.

For example, in its report, the Law Commission found that the offences of harassment and stalking are not particularly clearly defined in the PHA and while case law has assisted in defining the boundaries of these offences, there are still significant problems concerning the understanding of these offences amongst law enforcement officials and the general public.

In the civil courts, potential legal remedies available to victims under the PHA may include a claim for compensation for anxiety and any financial loss caused as a result of harassment. The Law Commission in its report recognised that the criminal law is only one of the tools through which society can address online abuse.

Harassment (and, in particular, online harassment) can cause enormous distress, anxiety, damage to reputation and financial loss and, in some cases, psychological illness such as depression and anxiety.

If you are being subjected to online abuse you may have grounds for a legal complaint.

At JMW, we have considerable experience of dealing with different forms of harassment, such as cases involving online abuse. This includes campaigns against a person on Twitter, Facebook and blogs and websites set up to target an individual or groups of individuals. It also includes ‘revenge porn’ cases.

We can also assist in relation to practical steps which may be taken to mitigate the harm caused by the conduct including liaising with social media website operators and the police.

If you require assistance, please do not hesitate to contact one of the team.

 

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