21 July 2020 by

In Sutherland v Her Majesty’s Advocate, the Supreme Courtroom dominated unanimously that it was appropriate with the accused individual’s rights below ECHR article Eight to make use of proof obtained by “paedophile hunter” (“PH”) teams in a prison trial.  

PH teams impersonate youngsters on-line to lure individuals into making inappropriate or sexualised communications with them over the web, after which present the fabric generated by such contact to the police. Importantly, they function with out police authorisation. 

Per Section 6(1) of the HRA, a prosecution authority – as a public authority – can’t lawfully act in a manner that’s incompatible with a Conference proper. Consequently, there have been two compatibility points on enchantment earlier than the Supreme Courtroom:

  1. Had been the appellant’s article Eight rights interfered with by means of the communications supplied by the PH group as proof in his public prosecution?
  2. To what extent is the state’s obligation to supply ample safety for article Eight rights incompatible with the use by a public prosecutor of fabric equipped by PH teams in investigating and prosecuting crime?

Factual Background 

The appellant was lured into sexual communications on Grindr and WhatsApp with a faux account arrange by an grownup member of a PH group. The decoy impersonated a 13-year-old boy. When the appellant sought to fulfill up with the decoy, he was confronted by members of the decoy’s PH group who remained with him till the police arrived.

Copies of the appellant’s communications with the decoy had been supplied to the police. The appellant was charged with trying to speak indecently with an older youngster and associated offences opposite to the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009 (“the 2009 Act”) and the Protection of Children and Prevention of Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2005 (“the 2005 Act”). 

The appellant unsuccessfully sought to contest the admissibility of the proof on two grounds. First, that it had been obtained by covert means with out authorisation below the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Scotland) Act 2000 (“RIPSA”). Second, that the proof was obtained covertly with out authorisation or affordable suspicion of criminality in violation of his rights below article 8. The appellant was finally convicted on every of the costs.

The Excessive Courtroom Proceedings

His enchantment to the Excessive Courtroom of the Justiciary was refused on grounds that RIPSA had no utility within the circumstances of this case, for the reason that decoy acted on his personal initiative and never on the instigation of the police. For a similar motive, the gathering of the appellant’s correspondence by a non-public citizen was not an interference by the state below article 8. Concerning the appellant’s non-public life, the Courtroom held he had no affordable expectation of privateness given the shortage of any longstanding pre-existing relationship. Even had there been an interference below article 8(1), the Courtroom stated, it will nonetheless have been justified below article 8(2).

The Judgement of the Supreme Courtroom

Challenge 1: Had been the appellant’s article Eight rights interfered with?

Article Eight displays two basic values. These had been summarised by Baroness Hale in R (Countryside Alliance) v Attorney General [2007] at para 116: 

the inviolability of the house and private communications from official snooping, entry and interference with out an excellent motive


the inviolability of … the non-public and psychological house inside which every particular person develops his or her personal sense of self and relationships with different individuals.

As this case doesn’t concern state surveillance, the judgement was focussed on the second of those basic values.

(i) The character of the communications

The primary motive why there was no interference with the appellant’s rights is as a result of the character of the communications was not able to making them worthy of respect. 

Lord Gross sales’ central proposition was that “respect” for the appellant’s non-public life and correspondence, below article 8(1), was conditional on the options of these actions being able to respect throughout the scheme of values the ECHR seeks to guard and promote [32]. 

In relation to the second basic worth articulated by Baroness Hale, it was established in X and Y v The Netherlands [1985] that the state has a constructive obligation below article Eight to guard youngsters from sexual exploitation by adults. While the state has a margin of appreciation in the way it discharges this obligation, on the info of that case, the Courtroom held that solely prison legislation provisions would have sufficed. 

This place was re-affirmed in KU v Finland [2008], the place it was held that the state breached its article Eight obligations in missing the prison sanctions essential to proscribe a person who positioned a sexualised advert on an internet-dating website, on behalf of a 12-year-old boy, with out his data or consent.

Within the current case, the provisions within the 2009 Act and the 2005 Act had been enacted to boost the safety for youngsters in relation to “grave varieties of interference with important facets of their non-public lives” (KU). The state has a constructive obligation below article 8, due to this fact, to make sure that there may be efficient enforcement of these provisions, in a lot the identical manner as in KU.

In KU, nevertheless, the ECtHR entered a salient caveat that it was reaching its judgement

 with out prejudice to the query of whether or not the conduct of the one who positioned the offending commercial on the web can appeal to the safety of articles Eight and 10, having regard to its reprehensible nature…”[49]

Aware of this qualification, Lord Gross sales additional distinguished the current case. Not like KU, which involved a extra oblique type of safety, the conduct right here concerned direct, sexually motivated contact between a paedophile and a baby. 

Moreover, as a result of this case doesn’t concern state surveillance or the interception of communications, all that’s in challenge is the “steadiness of pursuits” between the individual participating in such conduct and of the kids [40]. On this vein, the “reprehensible nature” of the communications doesn’t appeal to safety below article 8(1). 

This proposition is supported by three substantive arguments. First, the conduct in query is prison in nature and might have an effect on the kid extra instantly and in a extra instantly damaging manner than the conduct in challenge in KU

Secondly, as a result of the state has a constructive obligation below article 8, owed to youngsters, to implement these provisions of the prison legislation successfully, “the pursuits of kids on this area have precedence over any curiosity a paedophile might have in being allowed to interact within the conduct which has been criminalised by these provisions.” [42] 

Thirdly, “Article 17 of the ECHR (prohibition of abuse of rights) helps the conclusion that the prison conduct at challenge on this case is just not comparable to is able to respect for the needs of Article 8(1).” [43] To elaborate,

The actions of the appellant had been aimed on the destruction or limitation of the rights and freedoms of a kid below article Eight that are the topic of constructive obligations owed to youngsters by the state below that provision.[43]

(ii) No affordable expectation of privateness

The second motive there was no interference with article Eight is as a result of the appellant had no affordable expectation of privateness (Halford v United Kingdom) [1997]. That is an goal query.

First, we glance to the connection between the events. It’s pertinent that the appellant communicated instantly with the decoy and never by means of an nameless middleman. It’s also related that there was no prior relationship, which could have given rise to expectations of privateness. 

Second, we glance to the contents of the communications themselves. Within the Courtroom’s view, they weren’t of the sort to generate an obligation of confidentiality on the a part of the recipient. Moreover, given their “worrying” character, it was foreseeable {that a} youngster of 13 would share them with an grownup. Relatedly, the appellant couldn’t fairly anticipate that stated recipient wouldn’t go proof of prison conduct onto the police. After which as soon as the police obtained these communications, the appellant had no affordable expectation that both the police or the respondent ought to deal with them as confidential. Slightly, the police have a constructive obligation to analyze.

Challenge 2: the compatibility between the state’s obligation to guard article Eight rights and the use by a public prosecutor of fabric equipped by PH teams

The state had no supervening constructive obligation to guard the appellant’s pursuits. Slightly the respondent, as a public authority, had a constructive obligation to make sure that the prison legislation could possibly be utilized successfully to discourage sexual offences in opposition to youngsters. And this obligation

…has the impact that the respondent needs to be entitled to, and certainly may be obliged to, make use of the proof of the communications with the decoy in bringing a prosecution in opposition to him. [64]


The Supreme Courtroom’s determination was right. Its reasoning, nevertheless, was questionable on two fronts.

A heterodox method to article 8(1)

First, in its evaluation of the “nature of the communications”, the Courtroom partially elided the separate assessments for interference and justification below article 8(1) and article 8(2). This resulted from its bespoke method to the that means of “respect” below article 8(1). On Lord Gross sales’ building, “respect” for a person’s correspondence was successfully conditional upon its “respectability”. 

This interpretation was made doable by the truth that in KU v Finland, the ECtHR left open the query of whether or not content material of a “reprehensible nature” attracted safety below article Eight and article 10. Underneath strange rules of Strasbourg case-law, nevertheless, there’s a common presumption that the content material and type of the correspondence is irrelevant to the query of interference.

The heterodoxy of Lord Gross sales’ method could also be demonstrated by contrasting it with the judgement of the Courtroom of Session in BC and others v Chief Constable Police Service of Scotland and Others [2019]. In that case, the difficulty on enchantment was whether or not the Police Service of Scotland was entitled to make use of WhatsApp messages as a authorized foundation for bringing non-criminal misconduct proceedings in opposition to a bunch of officers and whether or not it breached their proper to privateness. Considerably for our functions, Lord Bannatyne held that article Eight could possibly be engaged regardless that the content material of the messages was of “an abhorrent nature”. The interference was justified, nevertheless, by article 8(2).

What would possibly clarify this discrepancy? The conduct on this case was of a prison nature in contrast to that in BC. Lord Gross sales stated the prohibition on the abuse of rights below article 17 precluded the appliance of article Eight to the appellant’s prison conduct as a result of it was aimed on the destruction of a kid’s proper to bodily and psychological inviolability. It is a principled distinction that shouldn’t be dismissed. 

However this interpretation does open the gateway for excluding prison or suspected prison correspondence from the purview of article Eight altogether. Right here the Courtroom went to prolonged lengths to keep away from the balancing check below article 8(2), regardless that the putative interference would have been simply justified. As a substitute, it weighed the pursuits of victims in opposition to the curiosity of defendants below article 8(1). By this metric, victims are all the time prone to take precedence.

Nonetheless, on this creator’s view, another method to the character of the communications would nonetheless not have been enough to interact article Eight as a result of, as each the Excessive Courtroom and Supreme Courtroom concluded, the appellant had no affordable expectation of privateness. 

An unsure method to the public-private divide

Second, the Courtroom’s construal of constructive obligations in prison issues dangers facilitating an unsure method to the public-private divide in legislation enforcement. In respect of the primary challenge, Lord Gross sales justifiably concluded that it was per the state’s constructive obligation to guard youngsters to make use of proof collected by PH teams. In respect of the second challenge, nevertheless, his Lordship went additional and stated the respondent may be obliged to make use of stated proof. In impact, this licences pre-emptive policing by non-public residents. This would possibly create incentives for public authorities to outsource proof assortment, on a de facto foundation, to legally unregulated citizen-groups. The Supreme Courtroom seems to have missed this chance as a result of it was hindered by an unduly formalistic view of the connection between police authorities and their “privatised” vigilante counterparts.

Sapan Maini-Thompson is coaching to turn out to be a barrister specialising in prison, public and human rights legislation. He tweets @SapanMaini