New study finds ‘paedophile hunter’ groups violate human rights, must be regulated

Published by  News Archive

On 18th Jun 2020

judge hammer

The methods used by so-called ‘paedophile hunter’ groups need to be subjected to more rigorous official oversight, according to new research from the University of East Anglia (UEA).

Vigilante citizen groups around the UK have organised in recent years to launch covert operations to entrap people they suspect of trying to commit child sexual offences, often filming the moment a suspect arrives at an arranged encounter. These groups usually report the alleged crime to police, but often post video footage of the confrontation on social media channels, sometimes livestreaming it in real time.

The activities of these groups, which have sometimes involved the use of violence against alleged suspects, are antithetical to numerous core values and functions of the criminal justice system, said Dr Joe Purshouse, a lecturer in criminal law in the UEA’s School of Law. His findings are published today in the Journal of Law and Society.

This research comes ahead of a UK Supreme Court judgment next month, which will determine whether or not the tactics of ‘paedophile hunter’ groups, and the use of their evidence by police, infringe on the privacy rights of their targets.

Dr Purshouse, whose research focuses on the intersection of human rights law, policing and technology, said: “It should not be permissible for procedural safeguards and human rights laws, which constrain police investigations, to be bypassed by groups of citizens who decide for themselves to engage in intrusive surveillance, public censure and shaming exercises.

“English law is failing to adequately regulate the activities of paedophile hunters. In fact, this research found that more investigatory discretion is afforded to paedophile hunters than to state law enforcement agencies.

“Untrained paedophile hunters are able to bypass procedural safeguards and regulations on police investigations, and undermine due process and violate the fundamental human rights of suspects.

“Moreover, the tactics these groups use are incompatible with the rules of criminal evidence and procedure, and may damage the proper administration of justice. In short, their activities may jeopardise potential criminal proceedings and lead to failed prosecutions of potentially dangerous offenders.”

As private citizens, paedophile hunters’ activities fall outside the scope of guidelines that law enforcement must comply with when carrying out undercover sting operations. However, they depend on the police and prosecution service to bring offenders to justice.

Typically the groups use intrusive investigative methods, posing as children on social media platforms and chatrooms to lure potential child sex offenders into ostensible illicit encounters. The paedophile hunters then confront the alleged suspect at an arranged meeting while filming and sometimes uploading the encounter straight online.

In addition to cases of mistaken identity and smearing innocent people, these arranged assemblies have led to immediate and sustained social media attacks on the alleged perpetrators and their family members. The footage is often circulated widely and left open for comments before a court (if a case goes that far) can restrict publication to safeguard the defendant’s right to a hearing in front of an impartial jury.

Police have acknowledged they are overwhelmed by a significant rise in online child sex offences, and paedophile hunters’ evidence has been used in numerous successful prosecutions for child grooming offences, including cases involving repeat offenders.  

But, Dr Purshouse said, “If paedophile hunters are perceived by the public to be ‘doing something’ about child sexual abuse, there is a danger that policy makers and practitioners may take too placatory a stance toward these groups. Police have been known to give advice to these groups and some senior police figures have suggested that police could collaborate with hunter groups.

“Furthermore, poor investigatory practices by paedophile hunters might have the effect of unduly diverting criminal justices resources. Their contributions to police investigations may be more hindrance than help.”

While the police and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) may sometimes act on evidence gathered by paedophile hunter groups, “the courts should not allow paedophile hunters to operate outside the constraints of police-led covert investigations,” Dr Purshouse said.

“In these circumstances, the state becomes the partner in a joint undercover policing enterprise. To keep accepting evidence provided by these groups and turn a blind eye to how the evidence is gathered is to signal tacit approval of these activities and implicitly induce them.

“The criminal justice system exists to remediate and deter criminal wrongdoing, and these functions are not served when criminal conduct is manufactured. To the extent that courts ‘play their part’ by affording paedophile hunters investigatory leeway to engage in precisely this manufacturing of criminality, they undermine their own integrity.

“It is the responsibility of the state to administer punishments for those who have committed crimes, and not individual citizens.”

‘Paedophile Hunters’, Criminal Procedure and Fundamental Human Rights is published in the Journal of Law and Society on 18 June 2020.

Study law at UEA

More world-leading research

Latest News

  News
A cut-out of a head and brain held in two hands
21 Jan 2022

What happens to our memories as we age?

Researchers at UEA are launching a new project investigating how our memories change as we age.

Read more >
  News
The ISS pictured orbiting above the Amazon rainforest.
19 Jan 2022

2021 one of the seven warmest years on record

Research from the Met Office and UEA has found 2021 was amongst the warmest on record, despite cooling effect of La Niña

Read more >
  News
An Andean bear and her cubs stand on a fallen tree trunk.
18 Jan 2022

Saving species through genomics in megadiverse Colombia  

The world’s second-most megadiverse country stands to benefit in many ways through membership in the Earth Biogenome Project, according to research from UEA.

Read more >
  News
A child stares glumly at a plate of food
18 Jan 2022

Why children may be off their food after Covid

More children could be turning into ‘fussy eaters’ after a bout of Covid, according to smell experts at UEA.

Read more >
Are you searching for something?
  News
A child stares glumly at a plate of food
18 Jan 2022

Why children may be off their food after Covid

More children could be turning into ‘fussy eaters’ after a bout of Covid, according to smell experts at UEA.

Read more >
  News
Pen on a book
17 Jan 2022

New Centre for Contemporary Poetry to shine a light on marginalised poets

UEA is set to become the home of a new collection of archives amplifying the voices of poets from underrepresented groups in British and Irish literature, thanks...

Read more >
  News
A pregnant woman stands next to a window
17 Jan 2022

Helping new mums stay smoke free

UEA researchers are recruiting to a major new study to help new mums stay smoke free.

Read more >
  News
11 Jan 2022

Norwich Business School joins highly acclaimed Small Business Charter

The accolade is in recognition of its expertise in supporting small businesses, student entrepreneurship, and the local economy, with Norwich Business School at...

Read more >
  News
A selection of fruits and vegetables representing a Mediterranean diet.
10 Jan 2022

Could a Mediterranean diet be key to prevent dementia?

UEA researchers are launching a study to see whether the beneficial effects of a Mediterranean diet could help prevent dementia.

Read more >
  News
A woman at an outdoor group exercise class stretches her arms
07 Jan 2022

How exercise interventions could help people with asthma

Interventions aimed at promoting physical activity in people with asthma could improve their symptoms and quality of life – according to new UEA research.

Read more >
  News
Photograph of the US research ship Nathaniel B Palmer at the ice front of Thwaites Glacier
05 Jan 2022

UEA scientists lead new mission to Antarctica’s remote Thwaites Glacier

On the 100th anniversary of the polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton’s death, a research mission using a fleet of underwater robots to determine the impact of...

Read more >