05:22, July 15 250 0 theguardian.com

2020-07-15 05:22:04
‘Paedophile hunters’ do not violate human rights, court rules

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 “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 which 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).

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 that 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 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 that the police should consider resourcing its own covert work in order to reduce the opportunities for vigilante groups.

At the beginning of June, the National Police Chiefs’ Council warned that 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 easing 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 lockdown, a number of key activist groups in Scotland reported a significant increase in online grooming. A spokesperson for Child Protectors Scotland told the Guardian: “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.”