Police and prosecutors give “tacit encouragement” to vigilante paedophile hunter groups, the UK’s highest court has heard.
Supreme Court justices were told at a hearing on Wednesday that “huge numbers” of cases were prosecuted on the basis of information from such organisations.
A panel of five justices, including the court’s president Lord Reed, are being asked to consider whether prosecutions based on evidence gathered in covert sting operations by paedophile hunter organisations are incompatible with a person’s human rights.
The case has been brought by Mark Sutherland, who was convicted in August 2018 of attempting to communicate indecently with an older child, and related offences.
In 2018, Sutherland matched up on Grindr with someone who, when he communicated with them, claimed to be a 13-year-old boy.
He sent sexual messages and images to the person and they later arranged to meet at Partick station, in Glasgow.
In reality, the person Sutherland was communicating with was not a child, but a “decoy” – a member of a “paedophile hunter” group.
The group confronted Sutherland at the arranged meeting, broadcasting the encounter on social media and handing the evidence to the police.
Sutherland argues that his right to a private life, enshrined in Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, had been breached.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Gordon Jackson QC said: “The police are aware that there a number of hunter organisations operating in Scotland and the UK and evidence submitted from these organisations has led to a number of criminal investigations and convictions.”
There is “disquiet” about the work of such groups, he said.
Mr Jackson also argued that “a huge number” of cases were prosecuted on the basis of information from these organisations.
There was a large amount of guidance on these organisations, he said, but added that “what we have is tacit encouragement of these groups”.
The barrister argued that what hunter groups were likely to take from the fact that many cases were prosecuted was that even if there were “reams of documentation”, “at the end of the day, we’re pretty sure if we carry on doing it, they’ll prosecute”.
“That’s systemic tacit encouragement,” Mr Jackson added.
Alison di Rollo QC, Solicitor General for the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, Scotland’s Prosecution Service, which is opposing the appeal, argued that the criminal prosecution of sexual conduct between an adult and a child “does not engage” someone’s rights to privacy.
“There is no right to respect for such behaviour in a democratic society,” she said.
Ms di Rollo said it was clear that the “overriding duty” of the police was “to respond to any report of any identified person who may pose a sexual risk to children”.
She said there was guidance which set out “the risks, the activities, the undesirability of the activities of these groups”, adding later that the “usual high standards of investigation and reporting” were required “regardless of the source of the evidence”.
Ms di Rollo added: “Where there is evidence that groups or individuals may have committed criminal offences when carrying out activities, these should be investigated and reported to prosecutors in the usual way.
“The decoy and groups are as liable to criminal prosecution as those against whom, from whom, they obtain evidence.”
Documents setting out details of the case were not made available to press attending the remote hearing.
The hearing is expected to end on Wednesday and the justices are expected to give their ruling at a later date.
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