Cases involving trolling on social media sites should now be easier to deal with after the Director of Public Prosecutions published definitive guidelines on the tabloid-fodder phenomenon this morning.
Keir Starmer, who will leave his post as DPP in the autumn, said that the interim guidelines the Crown Prosecution Service issued late last year remained largely unchanged following public consultation.
"Having considered the consultation responses, and our experience of dealing with these cases in recent months, I believe the guidelines do set out the right approach to prosecution by making the distinction between those communications that should be robustly prosecuted, such as those that amount to a credible threat of violence, a targeted campaign of harassment against an individual or which breach court orders, and those communications which may be considered grossly offensive, to which the high threshold must apply," he said.
"These are cases that can give rise to complex issues, but to avoid the potential chilling effect that might arise from high numbers of prosecutions in cases in which a communication might be considered grossly offensive, we must recognise the fundamental right to freedom of expression and only proceed with prosecution when a communication is more than offensive, shocking or disturbing, even if distasteful or painful to those subjected to it."
Under the new guidelines, prosecutors should only proceed with a case where a communication is “more than offensive, shocking or disturbing; or satirical, iconoclastic or rude comment [sic]; or the expression of unpopular or unfashionable opinion about serious trivial matters, or banter or humour, even if distasteful to some or painful to those subjected to it.”
Last year, Starmer alarmingly warned that the courts could end up being clogged with "millions" of trolling cases, after public outrage over tasteless online messages led to people being arrested under malicious communications laws.
Indeed, in 2012 it felt like hardly a day went by when an investigation into internet trolls accused by offended Brits of posting hurtful comments on Facebook, Twitter and other websites didn't make the headlines in the national and regional press.
Many of those cases were sparked by arrests that mainly cited section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, which outlaws messages that are "grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character".
However, in reality Starmer's claims may have been exaggerated, given that 1,286 charges involving breaches of the aforementioned section were dealt with by the UK courts in 2011 - less than one per cent of all court traffic that year.
The latest edition of the guidelines can be viewed on the Crown Proseuction Service website. ®