Social Media Prosecution Guidelines: CPS Consultation

March 3, 2016

The Crown Prosecution Service is updating its guidelines on social media to incorporate new and emerging crimes that are being committed online and to provide clear advice to help the prosecution of cyber-enabled crime. The revised guidelines cover cases where offenders set up fake profiles in the names of others, as well as advising prosecutors on the use of social media in new offences, such as revenge pornography and controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship.

The CPS has launched a ten-week public consultation about the proposed revisions.

Alison Saunders, Director of Public Prosecutions, said: ‘Online communication is developing at such a fast pace, new ways of targeting and abusing individuals online are constantly emerging. We are seeing more and more cases where social media is being used as a method to facilitate both existing and new offences. …Worryingly we have seen an increase in the use of cyber-enabled crime in cases related to Violence against Women and Girls, including domestic abuse. Offenders can mistakenly think that by using false online profiles and creating websites under a false name their offences are untraceable. Thankfully this is not the case and an online footprint will be left by the offender. Our guidelines are under constant review and continuously updated to ensure prosecutors have clear advice on new methods of committing crimes.’

Advice has been added to the guidelines about the use of false online profiles and websites with false and damaging information. For example, the guidelines suggest that it may be a criminal offence if a profile is created under the name of the victim with fake information uploaded which, if believed, could damage their reputation and humiliate them. In some cases the information could then be shared in such a way that it appears as though the victim has themselves made the statements This may amount to an offence, such as grossly offensive communication or harassment.

Since the guidelines were published in 2012 two new offences have been created and the guidelines have been updated to incorporate these. Revenge pornography is predominantly carried out online and is worryingly becoming a common tactic of revenge, often after the breakdown of a relationship. The offence of engaging in controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship came into force on 29 December 2015. Whilst this type of abuse can be carried out both online and offline, the CPS say that prosecutors need to be attuned to the use of GPS and Spyware amongst others, which offenders may use to assert control over a victim. The CPS has therefore updated the domestic abuse Joint NPCC and CPS Evidence Gathering checklist to remind officers and prosecutors of the online nature of this offending and that this type of evidence should be explored and collected.

The CPS identified in the Violence against Women and Girls Annual Report 2014-15 (VaWG) that cyber-enabled crime was becoming more prominent within cases and  social media was being used to target victims and to facilitate existing crimes such as blackmail, grooming, harassment and stalking.

The Interim Revised CPS Guidelines on Prosecuting Social Media Cases can be seen on the CPS website here. A downloadable consultation response document is also available there. Bizarrely, the consultation includes no question relating to the much-trumpeted new guidelines on false profiles – presumably an oversight.