Encouraging self-harm to be a crime
New offence proposed in Online Safety Bill
A new offence of encouraging others to commit serious self-harm is being proposed by the government.
The Ministry of Justice said the reform would be introduced by way of an amendment to the Online Safety Bill, which has nearly completed its passage through parliament.
Complicity in another’s suicide is already an offence. Molly Russell, 14, took her own life in 2017 after viewing online material related to self-harm, suicide and depression. A coroner found last year that she died from an act of self-harm whilst suffering from depression and the negative effects of online content.
For a conviction under the proposed new offence, prosecutors would have to prove that a communication was intended to encourage or assist serious self-harm amounting to grievous bodily harm. This covers serious injuries such as broken bones or permanent physical scarring.
Encouraging people to starve themselves or not take prescribed medication would also be covered. The offence would apply whether or not the perpetrator knew the victim and whether or not the target responded to the offender’s encouragement.
The reform is clearly aimed at those who target others online, though it does not seem to be confined to electronic communications. Five years’ imprisonment would be the maximum penalty.
All this comes from a Ministry of Justice announcement released this morning. I could not find the amendment itself on the parliament website.
Readers may possibly think they have heard this before. They would not be wrong.
This story appeared in the Observer on 27 November last year:
People who use social media posts to encourage self-harm face criminal prosecution under government changes to the revived online safety bill.
Culture secretary Michelle Donelan will update the bill to criminalise encouraging self-harm when the legislation returns to parliament next month…
“I am determined that the abhorrent trolls encouraging the young and vulnerable to self-harm are brought to justice,” said Donelan. “So I am strengthening our online safety laws to make sure these vile acts are stamped out and the perpetrators face jail.”
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport made it official a day later:
The government has… confirmed it will use the Online Safety Bill to create a new criminal offence of assisting or encouraging self-harm online.
And on 29 November the Law Commission, which had recommended the new offence in 2021, said it was pleased that the government would be implementing its proposal.
This was how the government’s law reform advisers had thought the offence should be formulated:
Professor Penney Lewis, the commissioner for criminal law, said last year:
Our recommendation to set a high threshold of harm would ensure that the offence targets the most serious encouragement or assistance of self-harm without unduly criminalising vulnerable people.
It’s important to stress that harming oneself would not be criminalised under these proposals. Attempting to take one’s own life ceased to be a crime in 1961.