Home is Where the Hurt is: Lockdown and the UK Surge in 'Revenge Porn'

7th May 2020 Media Law

The six-week duration of the UK's coronavirus lockdown has transformed many aspects of our professional and personal lives.

Working from home and having to keep our distance from everyone except those with whom we live represents a tremendous change from what we’re all used to.

Some more negative elements of domestic life, however, have not changed and, in fact, seem only to have been heightened by the pressure created by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Within the last fortnight, a national domestic abuse helpline has detailed how the number of calls for support which it was receiving three weeks into the lockdown were 49 percent higher than normal.

In addition, a charity dealing with victims of what has become known as 'revenge porn' has revealed that it opened more than 200 cases in the four weeks following Boris Johnson's announcement of measures to limit the spread of the virus - more than for any similar period in the organisation's five-year history.

Most people will have some idea about what 'revenge porn' is but to avoid any possible ambiguity, it's perhaps worth knowing what the authorities now define it as.

That's important because a change in the law in 2015 created a specific criminal offence of the "malicious disclosure of private sexual photographs and films without the consent of the person featured" with the intention of causing distress.

As a result, those found guilty of the crime face a maximum sentence of two years' imprisonment.

The change in the law came as a result of an increasing number of 'revenge porn' cases and the growing awareness of the impact which this very public form of abuse has on the lives of those affected.

As the latest evidence suggests, the potential sanctions have not reduced complaints of this misconduct.

Only last year, one survey suggested that as many as 10 percent of Britons had themselves been victims of 'revenge porn'.

Often, the offenders are current or former spouses or partners.

Yet although criminal sanctions now exist, a complaint does not automatically lead to action being taken by the police or criminal courts.

A YouTube celebrity, Chrissy Chambers, had to resort to civil law after the Crown Prosecution Service refused to press charges against a former boyfriend who uploaded images of them having sex to a number of internet pornography sites.

In the first case of its kind, she ultimately sued him for harassment, breach of confidence and misuse of private information and later agreed a "substantial" out of court settlement in December 2017.

That was followed this March by a further example involving two individuals well-known to the readers of British tabloid media.

Alex Reid, the ex-husband of the model Katie Price, was awarded £25,000 in damages in addition to his £150,000 legal costs after she disclosed images of "intimate sexual activity" which had "destroyed" his life, leading him to be the subject of ridicule and even attempted blackmail.

I should point out, though, that offender and victim don't necessarily need to have been in a romantic relationship together.

Together with my colleague Nick McAleenan, I acted for a woman, Susanne Hinte, whose former friend sold topless pictures to The Sun newspaper in order to humiliate her after they had a falling out.

It led to the friend being fined and given a suspended jail term, while The Sun agreed to pay substantial damages to the family of Mrs Hinte, who unfortunately died before the proceedings were completed.

Whilst damages are among the remedies open to victims, they're usually not the primary concern.

In some cases which involve the actual or threatened disclosure of private images or video footage - such as one which came to a close at the end of last month - claimants merely want to ensure that the compromising material is taken out of circulation for good or to remove the threat of publishing it.

The latest rise in complaints of 'revenge porn' have been attributed to "the increased use of the internet and social media, as well as heightened emotions" during the coronavirus lockdown.

How could they still be on the rise, though, with UK legislation in place which was designed to tackle the problem?

As the Chrissy Chambers' case shows, that could be down to the high evidential hurdle involved – and therefore the difficulty in persuading the authorities to proceed with a criminal case.

Her former boyfriend had circulated footage of them before the new criminal law was introduced, meaning that she was forced to clear another obstacle - the cost of civil litigation - in order to proceed, something which she did via a successful crowdfunding appeal.

Perhaps the solution lies in making penalties even more severe.

Last year, Italy introduced new legislation which, although broadly similar to provisions in the UK's Criminal Justice and Courts Act, carried a maximum jail term three times as long and a fine of up to £12,800 (€15,000).

According to news reports, the Law Commission is now also considering extending the legal sanctions in ‘revenge porn’ cases with the creation of a new offence of “making threats to make, take or share an intimate image”.

Whatever the answer, the growing number of 'revenge porn' victims need to know that they can capably seek redress against those who wreak havoc on their lives by distributing the most intimate material out of a desire to do harm.

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Laura Wilkinson is an Associate located in Manchesterin our Commercial LitigationMedia Law departments

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