On the 6 April 2017, The Sun announced with the rather lurid headline “vigilante paedo hunters Dark Justice win landmark court ruling giving them total freedom to entrap perverts”.
Dark Justice themselves shy away from the term vigilantes and on their own website state “we are not vigilantes who operate above the law, we’re concerned citizens who work closely with the police to help effect change and to keep our children safe!” Any online search to define vigilante is likely to come up with something like “a member of a self-appointed group of citizens who undertake law enforcement in their community without legal authority.”
Why all the media interest? Dark Justice which was founded on 6th October 2014 and comprises of two men who set up fake internet profiles as bait for individuals who might contact them with a view to grooming them and meeting them for sexual purposes.
Dark Justice indicate that they are loathe to let the fake personas enter into sexually explicit conversations, encourage sexual chat or sexual behaviour and always point out to the interested person that they are a child.
Once the bait is taken Dark Justice will suggest a meeting place in a safe area. If the unknowing party attends they contact the police and confront them on camera. In fact it matters not whether the person shows up as the offence is made just by arranging to meet. Dark Justice will contact the police regardless.
There has been significant media interest in Dark Justice amongst national newspapers and television and a fascination with the posting of videos of outed males being confronted.
Two of those ensnared by Dark Justice, with trials pending at Newcastle Crown Court, argued that the evidence gathered by Dark Justice should have been subject to the regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) but this was rejected in a ruling by Justice Longstaff who stated “the provision of RIPA are directed towards the behaviour of Public Authorities rather than private citizens. There is no requirement for their activities to be subject to any of the controls that might have been a condition of authorisation.” The Learned Judge did add “there may be an argument that in doing what they did, Dark Justice did not act in the public interest to reduce crime, but acted in a manner contrary to public interest by helping to create it where it might not otherwise have occurred”.
Such argument if brought will hinge on the fact that Dark Justice initially set up profiles of women that are women purporting to be over 18. Once someone shows an interest they then use the profile to indicate that the person is a child.
Whilst The Sun’s headline indicates court ruling “gives Dark Justice total freedom to entrap perverts” this is not entirely so.
The Dark Justice website indicates that they have contributed to 79 arrests and 42 convictions. Of the 42 convictions 20 have been imprisoned and the rest have received suspended sentences and or community orders.
There is no doubt that the media interest in Dark Justice stems largely from the fact that they make videos of the people they catch at the scene of the arranged meetings. The videos are posted on YouTube and various newspaper websites generating a huge amount of interest. The law however has recently changed. The Serious Crime Act 2015 inserts a new s.15A after s.15 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. It is now an offence for a person aged 18 or over, if for the purpose of obtaining sexual gratification they intentionally communicate with another person and that communication is sexual or intended to encourage the person they have contacted to make a communication that is sexual and the other person is under 16. Although this provision dates back to 2015 it wasn’t brought into force until recently. A public campaign was launched by the NSPCC on You Gov in October 2014 where over 50,000 signed the petition and it was finally implemented.
S.15 of the 2003 Sexual Offences Act already made provision for an offence of meeting a child with the intention of committing a relevant offence. The legal requirements to secure a conviction included the fact that there must be a communication on at least two previous occasions and the offender must either meet the child or travel to the pre-arranged meeting or arrange to meet the child. This is why Dark Justice were able to report cases to the police even when the person did not attend the meeting that they were hoping to film.
One has to wonder how Dark Justice will operate in the future as theoretically they need not arrange to meet people but simply gather sufficient evidence to prove s.15A of the 2003 Act. However, simply reporting that somebody has been caught on their website without a video of them fainting on camera (see case of David Hanson) is unlikely to give them the press coverage they currently receive.