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Interim guidelines for prosecutors on cases involving communications via social media


The Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, discusses the interim guidelines for prosecutors on cases involving communications via social media.

"Today, I'm launching the interim guidelines for prosecutors on the approach to be taken in cases that involve communications or messages sent by social media.

"The need for the guidelines arises because of the rapid expansion of social media which has led to increasingly difficult judgement calls for prosecutors in very many cases. The aim is very much to get the balance right between free speech on the one hand and the enforcement of the criminal law on the other and also to ensure consistency in the decisions that are made about whether people should go to court.

"The approach we have taken is to distinguish between two broad categories of case.

"In the first category are messages or communications that amount to credible threats to the individual or to property, or amount to campaigns of harassment against an individual, or breach court orders. That category of case will be prosecuted robustly.

"The other category are messages or communications which are offensive, insulting or controversial, but which nonetheless attract free speech protection. In that category of cases, there will be a high trheshold for prosecution, and we've also indicated that a prosecution is unlikely to be in the public interest unless it is both necessary and proportionate. And in assessing whether a prosecution is necessary and proportionate, we've guided prosecutors to look at issues such as:

  • was the message taken down promptly, and was there remorse?
  • was the message blocked, perhaps by the service provider?
  • was the message intended for a wide audience, or was that the obvious consequence of sending it?
  • and - very importantly - did the message go beyond what would reasonably be considered tolerable in a democratic and plural society?

"The guidelines are interim guidelines. They are in immediate effect, but they are subject to consultation now for three months, so we're inviting views from anyone who has an interest in the subject matter."