Gathering evidence in covert sting operations by “paedophile hunter” groups does not breach a person’s human rights, the supreme court has ruled.
Dismissing an appeal by Mark Sutherland, a paedophile who was convicted using evidence collected by an anti-grooming group in Glasgow, Lord Sales said in a unanimous judgment: “The reprehensible nature of the communications means they do not attract protection under article 8(1). The interests of children have priority over any interest a paedophile could have in being allowed to engage in criminal conduct.”
In a case that has been followed closely by authorities across the UK, Sutherland appealed on the basis that his investigation by the group Groom Resistance Scotland, and the use of the resulting evidence by prosecuting authorities, breached his right to respect for his private life and correspondence under article 8 of the European convention on human rights (ECHR).
Sales added there could be no reasonable expectation of privacy given the lack of prior relationship between Sutherland and the decoy he was communicating with. The judgment concluded that the police and courts had a positive obligation to ensure that the criminal law is applied effectively to deter sexual offences against children.
Welcoming the judgment, DS Martin MacLean, Police Scotland’s head of child protection, said: “It makes it clear that there is no right of privacy for people who seek to commit serious criminal acts and to perpetrate the abuse of children online.
“It is understandable that people want to protect children from harm but we would ask them not to take the law into their own hands. Revealing the identity of suspected offenders can jeopardise the safety of individuals, their families and the wider public.”
Last summer a Guardian investigation revealed a surge in cases going through the Scottish courts based on evidence gathered by what the police term “online child abuse activist groups”, or OCAAGs. The investigation also highlighted significant concerns about how these covert methods sit alongside law enforcement.
Across the UK, the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) estimates police deal with about 100 incidents every week, relating to 190 known OCAAGs, although they caution that some have only ever been involved in one incident while others are differently named groups started by the same individuals.
According to the Guardian’s investigation, some OCAAGs are highly organised, making serious attempts to gather the most usable evidence for police and courts, and are often self-taught in legal procedure. They also provide more general advice on internet safety and support around sexual abuse to their thousands of online followers, and some claim to have positive individual relationships with local police.
Earlier this year the HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS) estimated that almost half of online grooming cases resulted from such activities. In its strategic review of Police Scotland’s response to online child sexual abuse, published in February, HMICS recommended the police should consider resourcing their own covert work in order to reduce the opportunities for vigilante groups.
At the beginning of June, the NPCC warned the easing of lockdown could result in a spike in OCAAG activities. The NPCC lead for online child abuse activist groups, assistant chief constable Dan Vajzovic, said: “During the coronavirus lockdown we have seen a fall in the number of face-to-face “stings” carried out by online child abuse activist groups. However, we believe these groups have been continuing to operate online during this time.”
Underlining that the police do not endorse these groups and will not work with them, he added: “We are concerned that activists may be storing up incidents to act upon once lockdown measures are released. We believe that’s dangerous for child safety and would encourage activist groups to pass any material to police at as early a stage as possible.”
Within a week of the strictest lockdown rules being eased in Scotland, police were called to three separate incidents that were locally attributed to paedophile hunters’ activity across the central belt, in Glenrothes, Falkirk and Royston.
During the lockdown, a number of key activist groups in Scotland reported a significant increase in online grooming. A spokesperson for the group Child Protectors Scotland said: “The protests you are seeing is not caused by hunting teams. They are caused by the frustration of parents wanting these people removed from their streets.”