Online paedophile hunting groups are incredibly popular. Some attract hundreds of thousands of followers to their social media pages. “Hunters” have also proven somewhat effective in assisting the police. Evidence provided by paedophile hunter groups was used to support 150 of the 302 prosecutions for “grooming” a child to engage in sexual activity in 2017.
But the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme recently revealed that at least eight men in the UK have killed themselves in the last six years after being labelled child sex offenders on social media by so-called “paedophile hunters”. The majority of the men took their own lives within days of being filmed, and named and shamed on social media.
The BBC’s report shed light on some of the devastating ramifications this relatively new form of citizen-led policing can have for those accused of committing child sex offences, and for their families.
Paedophile hunters predominantly operate by posing as children on social media sites and chat rooms. They then lure potential child sex offenders to an ostensible sexual encounter. Here, the suspect is confronted by the hunters.
Although there is some variation in how these groups operate, this confrontation is typically filmed and uploaded onto the hunters’ own social media page. This is usually before the hunters report the alleged crime to the police.
The police have previously used social media to “crowdsource” the analysis of public CCTV footage – harnessing the efforts of social media users to assist in the identification of suspects. This sort of assistance is low cost and low risk for stretched police forces.
But paedophile hunting goes further than many other forms of citizen-led policing. Hunters use proactive and covert methods before meeting, confronting, and, sometimes, detaining suspects in person.
It is undeniable that paedophile hunters have contributed to the successful prosecution of child sex offences, including cases involving repeat offenders. But these contributions have come at tremendous cost, to the administration of justice, and to suspects’ human rights.
There have been numerous reports of poor investigative practices by paedophile hunters, and of trials collapsing because paedophile hunters have not understood or acknowledged the rules governing the admissibility of the evidence they collect.
Some groups have engaged in vigilante tactics. Uploading videos of confrontations is also dangerous. In April 2018, a Yorkshire based paedophile hunting group, named “Protecting the Innocent”, issued a public apology after live-streaming a confrontation with an innocent, mistakenly identified target.
The National Police Chief’s Council recently described paedophile hunter activities as “high risk”. It outlined concerns that these groups are frequently producing unusable evidence – and failing to safeguard any children or vulnerable people who may have contact with a suspect.
What does the law say?
The law sets some limits on paedophile hunter investigations but whether or not the groups themselves observe them is another issue. Where hunters engage in vigilante tactics they may be charged with offences such as assault, false imprisonment, or even blackmail.
However, English law also seems to invite some of the problems with paedophile hunting. This is because, if, like paedophile hunters, the police covertly develop online relationships, their conduct would usually require authorisation – which requires officers to demonstrate the necessity of their activities, and sets limits on their conduct. Paedophile hunters have, with the blessing of domestic courts, effectively been able to sidestep this safeguard, on the basis that they are not acting on behalf of the police. However, where the police are reaching out to these groups to offer support and advice, or signalling tacit approval of their conduct (by ignoring crimes committed by these groups), it seems that authorisation is entirely appropriate.
The courts have also drawn a distinction between entrapment conducted by the police, and entrapment by non-state actors – such as paedophile hunters – and they are more willing to tolerate the latter. It seems illogical that laws designed to protect suspects’ fair trial and privacy rights can be circumvented by untrained and unregulated groups of amateurs in this way.
Clearly this is a matter that evokes strong public interest but what is really needed is a change in law to safeguard suspects, and to protect the integrity of the criminal justice system. This is important because the legal framework is failing to protect suspects in light of new developments in citizen-led policing. And given that more and more paedophile hunters are appearing online all the time, this needs to happen sooner rather than later.
Joe Purshouse, Lecturer in Criminal Law, University of East Anglia.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.