The Malicious Communications Act 1988 and The Communications Act 2003
The Malicious Communications Act 1988 ("the MCA") makes it a criminal offence to send an electronic communication in any form that is indecent or grossly offensive, or which conveys a threat, or which is false, provided there is an intent to cause distress or anxiety to the recipient.
Similarly, The Communications Act 2003 ("the CA") makes it a criminal offence to send messages by means of a public electronic communications network such as Twitter which are grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character.
The main distinction between the MCA and the CA is that the scope of the MCA is much broader extending to letters and articles as opposed to solely electronic communications and unlike the CA it is not limited solely to public electronic communications networks.
Convicted offenders under both the MCA and the CA can be jailed for up to 6 months and fined up to £5,000.
The MCA and CA provide a framework by which perpetrators of online abuse can be prosecuted, however, the threshold for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to consider prosecution is high. This means that it can be difficult to persuade the CPS to prosecute. The CPS have even published prosecution guidelines in an attempt to limit the number of criminal cases being prosecuted for abusive tweets and publications on other social media sites due to the potential high volume of cases.
The Protection From Harassment Act 1997
The Protection From Harassment Act 1997 makes it a criminal and civil offence to pursue a course of conduct which causes alarm and distress, which includes the publication of words provided there have been at least two communications.
Convicted offenders can be imprisoned for up to 6 months and fined, although this can be increased to up to 5 years and an unlimited fine if harassment causes the victim to fear violence.
The victim can also bring a civil claim for damages and an injunction against the abuser. The identity of the abuser is necessary and if this is unknown the courts can assist in establishing the perpetrator’s identity.
Libel and Privacy [less often pursued]
It can also be libellous to communicate in social media, including to tweet or re-tweet, a false statement which harms someone’s reputation
If social media is used to publish private information about an individual, it could give rise to a potential privacy claim.
Whilst the criminal law is available, often the civil law provides the best avenue available in both preventing future harassment and in seeking damages.
At Venters Solicitors we can assist you with such an action.