Lawyers sceptical of "grooming" laws

Lawyers argue that proving criminal intent on the Web will be difficult

Government plans to criminalise the "grooming" of children on the Internet could be subverted by difficulties in defining online criminal intent, legal experts warn.

Blair's decision to review laws dealing with "grooming" techniques used by Internet paedophiles could prove problematic due to the difficulty in proving a perpetrators' intent to commit a paedophilic act over the Web.

"This is an area of law that is very difficult to define -- the government is going to have a lot of trouble defining what it means," said Robin Bynoe, partner at law firm Charles Russel. "The legislation will need to speak of an actual intent to molest which is very difficult to prove. It's one thing to talk dirty showing clear paedophile interest, but there may not be an intention to commit a paedophilic act."

"Grooming" is the technique that paedophiles use to entice children into sexual activity on the Internet. In the UK, the Indecency with Children Act 1960 is the most relevant piece of legislation to deal with paedophile chat on the Web, under the category "incitement" to commit a sexual offence. A successful prosecution would however have to show that there was an "act of gross indecency" which the child was being incited to participate in, making it impossible to charge someone with general sexual intent.

On recommendation from Internet children's charity Childnet International, the government is considering making the "enticement" or "luring" of children in chatrooms a criminal offence. "The precise wording is less important than the definitions," said Nigel Williams, director of Childnet International. "We're not looking at a broad offence, but the specific intent of a paedophile wanting to meet a child for sexual purposes."

Franklin Sinclair, senior partner at Tuckers Solicitors, is anxious that any law dealing with criminal intent must go beyond a person performing preparatory acts. "The government must be careful not to stop legitimate innocent activities on the Web, by restricting freedom of speech, the civil liberties of people and the right to communicate freely," he said.

Paedophiles are attracted to the Internet through the anonymity that it provides in meeting vulnerable children. "People are going to say, I like talking dirty, but would never do anything," said Bynoe. He added that a degree of persuasion will have to be evident in the conversations, as well as the man showing a clear intent to molest the child.

Jim Reynolds, former head of the paedophile unit at Scotland Yard, suggests that the act of a man lying about his age online with the intent of sexually assaulting a child should be made a criminal offence. He argues that this kind of crime could be proven by "basic detective work" such as interviewing the man, or searching his home for child pornography.

Child protection agencies are confident that Internet technology enables online criminal intent to be more clearly proven. "In an online environment, the big advantage is online evidence such as the proof of email contact with a child," said Childnet International's Williams. Evidence of this nature would be given additional weight if coupled with a covert police operation to set up an offline meeting with the paedophile. "I believe this type of activity prevention is the best approach, rather than mopping up the mess of an abused child," he said.

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