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Digital vigilantism and its involvement in the arrest, conviction and sentencing of child sex offenders in England and Wales

Understanding the potential impacts of online vigilantism on the arrest and conviction of child sex offenders. 

Key details

Lead institution
Principal researcher(s)
Rebecca McGuire
Police region
South East
Level of research
Project start date
Date due for completion

Research context

Though relatively new, the phenomenon of digital vigilantism is expanding rapidly and becoming an increasing issue for police and law enforcement agents, as is evidenced by the 2020 tightening of Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) guidance in 2020 to deal with these types of cases. 

Research on the topic is developing but is however lacking important perspectives from practitioners. The leading research on this topic addresses the issue with a view against the use of vigilantism in the pursuit of criminal consequences for potential child sex offenders (Purshouse, 2020).

Helpfully, this research is recent and therefore the information contained is relevant to the majority of current legislation and policing conduct. Despite this, this area is rapidly increasing and therefore consistent analysis of the phenomenon is necessary to deal with the issue as it unfolds and rises in prominence. 

The case of Mark Sutherland [2020 UKSC 32] provides a recent example of the practical use of evidence obtained in this way. Initially the evidence passed to police was used to convict. On further appeal, which reached the supreme court, this was held not to be in contravention with Article 8 of the Human Rights Act. Prior case law seems to produce differing results with some judgments, such as that of R v Walters and Ali [2017], supporting the use of these groups and others, R v Slusalarczik for example, unwilling to disregard the dangers that these vigilante groups may produce.

This study will begin with a background of current literature and follow with analysis of the opinions of professionals in the field in order to reach a better understanding of the impacts of online vigilantism on child sexual offence cases. 

Research methodology

  1. Literature review – currently awaiting publication. A literature review was undertaken to identify current research on the topic, understand common themes amongst this research and ultimately identify gaps in the knowledge base at this time. 
  2. Qualitative research – to be confirmed, planned to begin May/June 2022. This study will involve semi-structured interviews with practitioners including police officers, CPS and barristers – all of whom will have experience dealing with cases of child sexual abuse cases. A thematic analysis will be done following these interviews to find common themes and disseminate the data collected.
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