As a specialist internet defamation solicitors firm and together with legal PR consultancy firm, Byfield Consultancy, we made the decision to team-up to support the first private prosecution brought by an individual (Nicola Brookes) against internet trolls.
The case of Nicola Brookes
In November last year, we were approached by Nicola Brookes, a single mother who suffers from chronic Crohn’s disease. Nicola found herself on the receiving end of extremely abusive comments on Facebook, after sending a supporting comment to Frankie Coccoza when he left the X Factor last year.
The abuse was vile and unwarranted to the extent that anonymous internet trolls set up a fake Facebook profile account in Nicola’s name and image to post indecent comments and lure young girls. Nicola contacted the police and was informed that there was nothing that could actually be done. After getting involved, we contacted Facebook on several occasions and the fake profile page that was set up in Ms Brookes’ name was successfully taken down. However, this was not the end of Nicola’s suffering. The abusive communications have now got to the stage of the trolls disclosing her personal address and making lewd comments towards her daughter. Again the police were contacted – this time by the firm and whilst the inspector agreed to meet with her, the most that came out of this meeting was the offer of panic alarms in her home. It was clear that, unfortunately, Nicola’s local Police had no idea what to do.
Both Byfield Consultancy and us made the decision to act for Nicola on a pro bono basis to try and bring these trolls to justice. Surely we cannot just allow these trolls to invade someone’s privacy and literally follow her movements on the web; leaving harassing comments on each forum that she has visited? This is precisely what is happening to Nicola now. Our case is focusing on the dangers inherent in social media sites allowing such activities to take place. If we do not take action; if we do not assist Nicola, the abuse and harassment will simply escalate and become more intrusive.
Many have commented and asked, why has Nicola simply not closed her Facebook profile to the general public and even stated that she must have done something to attract this. Nicola did nothing, other than to post a message of support. Her image was then taken and a fake Facebook profile page created. Comments about her were posted on other public forums and the trolls’ own sites. This has no connection to the status of Nicola’s Facebook profile: if only it was that simple.
The current stage in the proceedings involves an application being made for an injunction from the High Court, known as a Norwich Pharmacal Order to compel Facebook to release the IP addresses of the posters of this information, in the hope of tracing the identity of the trolls. Once this has been obtained, a private prosecution will be commenced against these people. But lawyers should not have to do this. A criminal offense has been committed and the police should be involved hunting down these perpetrators, but no such assistance is provided. We have sufficient legislation in England with the Protection From Harassment Act 1997, Communications Act 2003 and the Malicious Communications Act 1988to deal with and punish offenders but what we are expecting from the police is that they should be able to police another planet altogether: the internet - with very little local knowledge and with tools which are not fit for purpose.
The bottle neck is clearly at the point where identities need to be revealed so the only long term solution is for the government to establish a body with some judicial powers to make it easier and cheaper for individuals or the police, to have the identity of their abusers revealed to them, for the police to have specialist divisions trained to deal with this issue and having the tools and powers to obtain identities from the likes of Facebook, and Twitter.
There is a clear anomaly in the law and the way in which internet abuse is treated and investigated by the police depending on whether the victim is in the public eye or an ordinary member of the public, like Nicola. We have taken on this case in the hope of achieving justice for Nicola and effecting a change in the system that will help other victims like her.
Pinder Reaux & Associates