Old Bailey

Hate crimes online and offline to be treated with equal seriousness, prosecutors told

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Lawyers prosecuting cases in crown courts in England and Wales have been instructed for the first time to treat with equal seriousness online and offline cases involving racially-motivated harassment and violent threats.

New guidance aimed at prosecutors, published today by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), states that racially motivated criminal acts should be treated the same regardless of whether they were perpetrated via the internet or in the real world.

The instruction applies to criminal offences deemed to be motivated by racism or hostility towards people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or disabled.

Writing in the Guardian, Alison Saunders, the director of public prosecutions, said: For many people in the UK, the scenes in Charlottesville last weekend may appear to be of scant relevance to their own lives. Even Thursday's horrific events in Barcelona may feel somewhat distant.

“But we should remember that there is a less visible frontline which is easily accessible to those in the UK who hold extreme views on race, religion, sexuality, gender and even disability. I refer to the online world where an increasing proportion of hate crime is now perpetrated.

“And this is why the Crown Prosecution Service today commits to treat online hate crimes as seriously as those committed face to face.”

The CPS says it will prosecute complaints of hate crime online “with the same robust and proactive approach used with offline offending, whilst recognising that children may not appreciate the potential harm and seriousness of their communications" and will "treat online complaints as seriously as offline complaints”.

Prosecutors should also understand the changing nature of platforms and their policies for taking down material, while being alert to the need to identify originators as well as “amplifiers or disseminators”.

Labour MP Luciana Berger, who has been the subject of racist abuse both online and offline, told the BBC’s Today programme she backed the new measures.

Berger said: “It’s anti-Semitic statements, it’s violent statements, it’s pornographic statements, death threats. This stuff happens all the time.

“We need to treat all victims of crime, whether it’s online or offline, in exactly the same way.”

So-called hate crime guidance for police, prosecutors and judges is an area fraught with controversy because of concerns about the possible impact on freedom of speech.

Hate crime also appears to be a rapidly expanding area for the 43 different police forces in England and Wales. In 2013, Greater Manchester Police began recording attacks on members of subcultures such as goths as hate crimes. Last year, Nottinghamshire Police attracted criticism for asking women to report to police any incidents of wolf-whistling – regardless of the fact that no law yet exists under which perpetrators can be arrested and charged for such behaviour.

The force also included “uninvited verbal contact” – talking to someone without their permission – alongside sexual assault in a list of what could be considered as constituting a misogynistic hate crime.

In practice, relatively few crime types can actually be committed via social media. They typically involve harassment or incitement to violence. Offences like assault and damage to private property can incur tougher sentences where a judge and jury finds the defendant had a racist, homophobic or other similar motivation. However, these crimes are incapable of being committed via social media as they involve actual, physical attacks.

Earlier this month, a group of MPs and campaigners demanded Muslim sex attackers be treated as race-hate criminals and therefore be handed tougher prison sentences when they attack white teenagers. Trevor Phillips, the ex-head of the Commission for Racial Equality, said political correctness and a fear of being accused of Islamophobia had contributed to the failure to intervene earlier to stop Asian Muslim sex abuse gangs in places like Rotherham and Rochdale.

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