Supreme Court decision will help 'change the tide' of online abuse

Supreme Court decision will help 'change the tide' of online abuse

Victims of online abuse may have more legal protection following a Supreme Court ruling which found that material shared publicly - and not just directly with the victim - could now be considered harassment.

The Supreme Court dismissed the appeal in late July by Detective Garda Eve Doherty against her conviction of harassing State solicitor Elizabeth Howlin by sending abusive communications over an 18-month period.

That July ruling may now have significant implications for proliferating instances of online abuse and harassment, according to Jody Cantillon, partner at Cantillon’s Solicitors in Cork.

Mr Cantillon said harassment cases may no longer rely on direct communication - posting damaging or upsetting material on a public online forum like social media may now be enough to take a case.

Tighter laws in this area are badly needed, he said, because online harassment is becoming "a massive problem".

Mr Cantillon's firm has already seen "a big increase" in people making contact in relation to online abuse, particularly on social media.

"Whilst in the past, harassment and bullying occurred in person. Now, this harassment and bullying are being done online, with the harasser/bully hiding behind a keyboard and with the perception of anonymity," he said. 

"Decisions like this are changing the tide and giving the accused fewer loopholes to try and avoid a conviction.

"We welcome this [DPP v. Doherty Supreme Court] decision as we hope it will help to ensure that bullies will not be able to rely on such a technicality in the future."

Prior to the recent Supreme Court decision, a case for harassment relied on "persistently following, watching, pestering, besetting or communicating with" the victim under section 10 of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act, 1997.

But not all communications in the Doherty case involved direct communication with the victim.  Letters and emails were sent to Ms Howlin's home but also to her GP and her place of work (the Director of Public Prosecutions) calling her "corrupt", a “two-faced bitch” and an “incompetent useless hobbit”.  

Posters or leaflets containing scurrilous claims were also placed around Ms Howlin's neighbourhood.  

Doherty was sentenced to three years imprisonment in January 2018 after being found guilty of harassing Ms Howlin before she unsuccessfully appealed the conviction this year.  

"The accused tried to argue that the communications were not directly with the victim and thus she could not be guilty of harassment," Mr Cantillon said.  

"The Supreme Court disagreed with this argument and held essentially that communicating with someone means that some information is made common as between persons communicating and the person communicated with. 

"The Court went on to state that 'this does not necessarily require the victim to be directly addressed'."

In the ruling, Justice Peter Charleton "essentially seems to be suggesting that for a person to be guilty of harassment, communication need not be directly with the victim," Mr Cantillon said. 

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