Existing laws sufficient to prosecute online harassment, experts claim

Sentencing of Brendan Doolin comes amid debate on need for new legal mechanisms

Judge Martin Nolan said that while the internet had its advantages, the case exposed “the dark side which allows a man sitting in his house to inflict huge amounts of trauma”. Photograph: Adam Peck/PA

Judge Martin Nolan said that while the internet had its advantages, the case exposed “the dark side which allows a man sitting in his house to inflict huge amounts of trauma”. Photograph: Adam Peck/PA

 

Laws governing online harassment are already sufficient to prosecute and have been used several times, legal experts have said after a man was jailed for targeting six women.

On Thursday, Brendan Doolin (37), Leighlin Road, Crumlin, Dublin, was convicted of targeting the women, all journalists and writers with a strong social media presence, and jailed for three years.

He was described by his own lawyers at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court as an “internet troll” who had only left his home twice in 17 years prior to the harassment being investigated.

Doolin pleaded guilty to harassing Sarah Griffin, Kate McEvoy, Sinead O’Carroll, Christine Bohan, Roe McDermott and Aoife Barry on dates between May 2012 and February 2018.

Judge Martin Nolan said that while the internet had its advantages, the case exposed “the dark side which allows a man sitting in his house to inflict huge amounts of trauma”.

He said the defendant “felt like he was untouchable”.

However, while the high-profile case has drawn interest, lawyers say it is not a precedent and that similar cases have already been through the courts.

Traditional behaviour

Specifically, they say, section 10 of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997 can be equally applied to online behaviour as it has been to traditional harassment.

Barrister Ronan Lupton, who specialises in the area, pointed out that the law covers harassment “by any means”, not just online.

“Many cases have come before the courts under this section and simply do not make press reports. However, given the egregious nature of the Doolin case it is unsurprising that it has hit the headlines,” he said.

Mr Lupton said the law is imperfect in that it fails to deal with one-off incidents of revenge porn, or to protect the anonymity of victims at trial. Nor does it clearly spell out elements of online and digital harassment.

‘Anonymous criminality’

“The Law Reform Commission and Internet Content Governance Advisory Group both have extensive reports advising on various positive and required changes to the criminal and civil law dealing with digital content and offences in the online world to include dealing with so-called anonymous criminality and posters.”

Robert Purcell, a solicitor specialising in criminal law litigation, said that while there are issues, the law could actually be used to prosecute a so-called revenge porn complaint.

The issue of persistence is key, he said, and can only be decided by a “reasonably minded person”, a standard legal test that can apply to how a jury considers the evidence in the event of a Circuit Court trial.

Meanwhile, Dr James O’Higgins Norman, director of the Anti-Bullying Centre at Dublin City University, also welcomed the prosecution.

“I think we should get on with using it rather than waiting for new and improved laws,” he said of forthcoming amendments designed to recast the law in relation to changing technology.

“There have been very few cases that have gone this far and I welcome the fact that the guards have pursued this using the laws,” he said.