Appeal case could have ‘serious implications’ on internet vigilante groups
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A landmark case before the UK’s highest court could have serious implications for self-styled ‘paedophile hunters’, according to a lecturer with an upcoming study on the vigilante groups.
Supreme Court justices are being asked to consider if prosecutions based on covert stings by such groups breach human rights.
Over the last two years, at least 28 crimes recorded in Suffolk referred to paedophile hunter or internet vigilante groups.
The Supreme Court case was brought by Glasgow man Mark Sutherland, 37, convicted in August 2018 of attempting to communicate indecently with an older child, and related offences.
Sutherland believed he was communicating with a 13-year-old boy on dating app Grindr, but was speaking to a “decoy” from a group which later confronted him.
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He argued his right to a private life, enshrined in Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, had been breached.
Gordon Jackson QC, for Sutherland, said “huge numbers” of cases were prosecuted on the basis of information from groups given “tacit encouragement”.
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Alison di Rollo QC, opposing the appeal for Scotland’s Prosecution Service, argued the prosecution of sexual conduct between an adult and a child “does not engage” someone’s rights to privacy.
Dr Joe Purshouse, law lecturer at the University of East Anglia, who has a study on the subject out later this month, said: “Owing to advances in technology and social media, these groups have been able to conduct undercover sting operations that were traditionally the reserve of professional and well-resourced police forces.
“However, unlike the police, these amateur groups have been able to operate without adhering to the same oversight and authorisation regulations that undercover police do when they infiltrate chatrooms to investigate child sexual exploitation.
“There are many active groups in the UK and their practices vary. Some have assaulted those they confront, whereas others try to provide lawful assistance to the police. The case considers whether human rights law requires them to adhere to covert police investigation regulations, if the police wish to rely on their evidence in prosecutions. It could have serious implications for whether these groups can continue without adhering to the same rules and regulations that constrain the investigations of state police forces.”