Evidence from paedophile hunters can be used in prosecutions, the Supreme Court has ruled but police chiefs have vowed not to work with the groups.
A convicted paedophile has lost a Supreme Court challenge over the use in criminal prosecutions of evidence gathered by paedophile hunter groups in covert sting operations.
The UK's highest court ruled on Wednesday that the interests of children have priority over any interest a paedophile could have in being allowed to engage in criminal conduct.
The ruling means evidence from paedophile hunter groups is admissible in future prosecutions.
Thomas Ross QC, Benchmark Advocates, explained that while the Supreme Court was dealing exclusively with the “admissibility of evidence” there is a “wider concern” of “lawlessness” brought on by the ruling.
He said: “Generally if people are allowed to act as the police, if these pedophile hunters as they’re called are allowed to set themselves up as quasi police officers there will really be nothing but trouble.”
But he added: “Although this decision doesn’t deal with it, these private groups still have to operate within the law, so they could be charged with assault if they’re wrestling people to the ground and holding them till the police comes - they’re still regulated by the law but the Supreme Court doesn’t have any concern about them posing as 13 years olds.”
Following the ruling, the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) has said that they do not "endorse" such paedophile hunter groups.
Assistant Chief Constable Dan Vajzovic, NPCC lead for online child abuse activist groups, said: “We do not endorse these groups and will not work with them. Unlike our officers these groups don’t offer any protection to victims, their evidence is often poor and some do it as cover for extortion and blackmail.
“As with every crime, if a member of the public passes information or evidence to the police we will investigate. There are legitimate ways for the public to support the police and share information.”
Mark Sutherland, was convicted in August 2018 of attempting to communicate indecently with an older child, and related offences, after evidence was collected by a paedophile hunter group Groom Resistance Scotland (GRS) and handed to police.
Mr Sutherland had been communicating on Grindr with who he believed to be a 13 year old boy but was actually a ‘decoy’ from the GRS, who confronted him in Glasgow, filming the encounter and handing it to the police.
Mr Sutherland brought a Supreme Court challenge arguing that his right to a private life, enshrined in Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, had been breached.
The court was asked to rule on the issue of whether prosecutions based on evidence gathered in covert sting operations by paedophile hunter groups are compatible with a person's human rights.
In the ruling, a panel of five justices unanimously dismissed Sutherland's appeal and said the public prosecutor was entitled to introduce evidence obtained by a "decoy" at Sutherland's trial to try to secure a conviction.
Announcing the court's decision, Lord Sales said the court held there was "no interference with the accused's rights" under Article 8 - which provides the right to a private life and correspondence.
He said: "Children have rights under Article 8 as well. Under that provision, the state has a special responsibility to protect children against sexual exploitation by adults.
"This indicates that there is no protection under Article 8 for the communications by the accused in this case. The interests of children have priority over any interest a paedophile could have in being allowed to engage in the criminal conduct in issue here.
"Since the state has to deter offences against children in order to protect their rights, the public prosecutor was entitled to introduce the evidence from the decoy at the trial of the accused to try to secure a conviction."
The court also found that Sutherland had "no reasonable expectation of privacy".