Is it best to take civil or criminal action for cyberbullying
Cyberbullying victims often find themselves at a crucial juncture: choosing between civil and criminal action. We dive into this predicament through the lens of a specific case study. We explore the story of Peter, a victim of persistent online harassment, to illustrate the complexities and potential outcomes of each legal path.
Our client Peter (not his real name) became a victim of cyberbullying after someone with whom he had fallen out, began publishing comments and articles about him. These articles related to events which took place 15 years earlier and which resulted in Peter’s company going into liquidation. The harasser still felt aggrieved because he was owed a small sum of money by the company which the administrators shut down. The harasser kept flooding the internet with accusations about Peter and eventually realised that the company going into liquidation was an inevitability.
Over time, the harasser intensified her attacks. Having received no reaction for a while, she escalated her cyberbullying activities and at one point created social media accounts, which impersonated Peter. She then reached out to Peter’s social media contacts and sent them links to her posts about him. She also approached Peter’s family, including his spouse alleging that Peter was a fraud. Her harassing posts were now published on various platforms such as Yell and Facebook. Following Peter reaching out to the platforms to remove the fake posts but to no avail, Peter decided to contact a firm of lawyers who specialise in cyberbullying.
When Peter approached our firm, he was very nervous and had very little hope that we would be able to help. His main questions surrounded the legal options around cyberbullying. We explained to Peter that the law provides a number of options for someone who has suffered at the hands of a cyberbully. One option included reporting the cyberbullying to the police as a form of harassment.
Harassment can happen online or offline and provided the harasser was intending to cause Peter distress, the ongoing acts by the harasser would constitute harassment under the Protection from Harassment Act and/or under s5 Public Order Act.
The other legal option that is available to individuals who are being cyberbullied is to file a claim for harassment in the High Court, which would be considered a civil claim, because harassment is both a civil and criminal wrongdoing. So, even if the police are unhelpful for whatever reason, the victim of cyberbullying can still take legal action against the harasser but instead of taking legal action in the criminal court, he can do so in a civil court, where police assistance is not necessary.
Civil legal avenues often offer a more streamlined resolution, especially when it comes to restraining orders or injunctions. These can sometimes materialise within a short span, avoiding the long wait of a criminal court hearing and possibly a change of heart halfway through the legal proceedings by the Crown Prosecution Service and the police.
At any point, they might decide that there is no longer public interest in continuing the criminal proceedings against you cyberbully or that the evidential threshold falls short of what might be needed to secure a conviction. In complex harassment cases like that of Peter, a civil legal claim can encompass multiple facets: privacy breaches, defamation, and the misuse of private data.
A criminal legal avenue, on the other hand, will often be limited to legal action for harassment as breach of privacy, defamation and breach of data are civil wrongdoings, meaning they cannot be handled by the criminal justice system. Furthermore, with criminal law, the victim of cyberbulling has little influence over the process and the outcome of the matter. The police or the Crown Prosecution Service can discontinue the case at any time with very little regard for the victim’s view of the matter.
Whilst the criminal route to resolving cyberbullying is free, often a civil legal approach will require the involvement of lawyers. This isn't necessarily a negative aspect of it because the harasser will also need to consider whether it is worth her while to continue with the cyberbullying in a situation where it is starting to cost her a significant amount of money to do so, mainly in legal fees. Read more about What the police can do to help if you are being harassed online.
If you are being cyberbullied, you might want to consider as a first step, seeking legal advice. Do this before rushing into any other action because the solicitor you are speaking to should have a great deal of experience in handling similar situations of cyberbullying and harassment, allowing the solicitor to give you advice specific to your situation.
Until you seek advice, keep a low online profile. If you have fears that the cyberbully will contact your associates, you might want to suspend your social media accounts, at least until you seek legal advice. Finally, it is worth considering speaking to the police about the situation as soon as possible as this might result in the police handing a harassment notice to the cyberbully, which often serves to put an end to the cyberbullying. In the case of our client Peter, we advised him to rigorously collect and preserve all pertinent evidence to ensure they are not being deleted before any law enforcement intervention.
The bring cyberbullying to an end, the best course of action, in the event that you are being cyberbullied is to collect evidence and seek urgent harassment legal advice. In our client Peter’s case, we advised him that as the cyberbullying was so severe and as the police seemed to be uninterested in helping him, to begin the process of obtaining an injunction against his harasser.
In Peter’s case, the relevant factors warranted an application for an emergency injunction as matters dramatically deteriorated by the time our lawyers became involved. Given the aggressive persistence displayed by the harasser, we felt confident in this approach. However, every case is different and must be considered on its own merits as injunction applications to prevent cyberbullying could be complex.
In conclusion, the case of Peter highlights the complex and distressing nature of cyberbullying and the importance of understanding the legal options available to victims. While both criminal and civil legal routes offer avenues for redress, each has its distinct advantages and challenges. The criminal approach, while cost-free for the victim, often leaves them with limited control and subject to the decisions of law enforcement and the Crown Prosecution Service. In contrast, civil actions, though potentially costly, offer more direct influence over the proceedings and can address a broader range of issues, such as privacy breaches, defamation, and misuse of private data.
The key takeaway from Peter's experience is the importance of seeking professional legal advice as early as possible. A lawyer with expertise in cyberbullying can provide tailored advice, guide the collection and preservation of evidence, and navigate the complexities of both civil and criminal legal systems. This case underscores the significance of a proactive and informed approach in tackling cyberbullying, ensuring that victims do not suffer in silence and that perpetrators are held accountable for their actions. As the online world continues to evolve, it's crucial for legal frameworks to adapt and offer robust protection to those affected by cyberbullying, ensuring justice and preventing further harm.
From the very moment I was briefed on Peter's situation, I was consumed by a mix of empathy and determination. Here was an individual whose professional and personal life had been thrown into disarray due to relentless and unwarranted online harassment. The challenge was not only the severity of the harassment but also the layers of complexities involved.
The online world, while offering various avenues to connect, also presents countless platforms where malicious intent can be spread far and wide. In Peter's case, the harasser was shrewd, using multiple platforms and methods to target him. Trying to convince platforms like Facebook and Yell to intervene proved frustrating, as they often remained non-responsive or required exhaustive proof.
The additional challenge lay in proving the harasser's intent, tracing the impersonated accounts back to her, and ensuring the preservation of crucial evidence. While the path was laden with obstacles, I was resolute in utilising every legal avenue available to bring justice to Peter.
Case studies are based on true cases where names, dates and circumstances have often been amended to protect the identity of those involved.