Women's Aid have welcomed the passage of legislation criminalising the distribution of intimate images without consent.
Chief executive, Sarah Benson, called on Helen McEntee, the justice minister, to commence the act as soon as possible.
Ms McEntee announced on Friday that the Government had secured approval of Coco's Law — the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill.
The legislation is named after Nicole 'Coco' Fox, who took her own life in January 2018, after suffering bullying, both online and in person.
The 21-year-old's mother, Jackie, has spearheaded a campaign to criminalise online harassment and bullying and has met Ms McEntee.
The Law Reform Commission highlighted gaps in the criminal law in this area in 2016, and Labour deputy, Brendan Howlin, introduced a bill in 2017. The Oireachtas justice committee held hearings on harmful communications in October and November 2019.
Ms McEntee said Coco's Law provides for two new offences dealing with the non-consensual distribution of intimate images:
- The first offence deals with the taking, distribution, publication, or threat to distribute intimate images without consent, and with intent to cause harm to the victim, and carries a maximum penalty of an unlimited fine and/or seven years' imprisonment;
- The second offence deals with the taking, distribution, or publication of intimate images without consent, without a requirement that the person intended to cause harm to the victim, and carries a maximum penalty of a €5,000 fine and/or 12 months' imprisonment;
- The legislation also provides that it will be irrelevant that a person might have consented to the taking of an image if it is subsequently published or distributed without their consent;
- It will be an aggravating factor, for the purposes of sentencing, if the perpetrator of the offence is, or was, in an intimate relationship with the victim.
In addition, the legislation will update existing harassment legislation by broadening the scope of the offence to cover all forms of persistent communications about a person, not just indecent images, and to increase the penalty from seven to 10 years to reflect the harm that can be caused by the most serious harassment.
Ms Benson said: "Women's Aid warmly welcome the legislation, which was first tabled in 2017 and followed the LRC report in 2016, so it's a long time coming."
She said Women's Aid frontline services "consistently" hear from hugely distressed women regarding the "reckless, or vindictive", sharing of intimate images online.
Ms Benson said she hoped the act would be commenced "quite quickly", saying indications were it could be February.
As well as the two new offences, she welcomed the "aggravating factor" provision, which she said was in keeping with the Domestic Violence Act 2018, saying this action was a "particular breach of trust" and could cause many years of trauma.
Ms Benson said Women's Aid had yet to study the full legislation and that there were some issues that they hoped might be added at a later stage.
Ms Benson said she also awaited detail on the powers of the planned online safety commissioner — including a speedy and effective takedown procedure of images — as proposed in the General Scheme of the Online Safety Media Regulation Bill.
Labour senators also welcomed the passage of Coco's Law through all stages of the Seanad.
Labour Seanad group leader and spokesperson for children, disability, equality, and integration, Ivana Bacik, said: "This bill was written in recognition of the fact that the online realm is a public space and that people who use that space should be protected in the same way that they would be offline. Similarly, it recognises that perpetrators of online abuse should be held to account as they would be anywhere else."
Speaking after the passage, Ms McEntee said: "The taking, or sharing, of intimate images without consent is abuse and will not be tolerated. This new legislation will give An Garda Síochána the tools they need to make sure that those who commit this abusive crime can be prosecuted and, if prosecuted, our courts will have sentences available that reflect the level of harm these crimes cause to their victims."
Recognising the speed at which the legislation progressed, Ms McEntee said: "I would like to thank all deputies and senators for their constructive engagement in advancing this much-needed legislation, which was instrumental in getting the bill passed before the end of the year. I would particularly like to thank Deputy Brendan Howlin for his work and his co-operation with me in recent weeks and months.
“I especially want to remember Nicole Fox and to acknowledge the selfless efforts of her mother, Jackie. Jackie has tirelessly campaigned to raise awareness about the harmful effects of online abuse and to make our laws stronger in this area.
"Nicole and Jackie are one of the main reasons that I was determined to deliver on my promise that the bill would pass through the Dáil and Seanad before Christmas. Nicole's memory and Jackie's campaign to honour her are recognised in the explanatory memorandum accompanying the legislation."
- Women's Aid 24-hour national freephone helpline: 1800 341 900