Legal Advice Centre students instrumental in new guidance protecting vulnerable people online

Law students working at the University of Manchester’s Legal Advice Centre have played a crucial role in creating new guidance to ensure safe internet usage for more vulnerable individuals.

Working alongside Liz Perry, a solicitor at Kirklees Citizens’ Advice and Law Centre, they represented the parents of a 21-year-old man with a learning disability living in supported accommodation. The parents had grown concerned for their son’s safety, as his trusting and compulsive behavioural tendencies would put him in harm’s way, because while unsupervised, he would disregard online warnings and access pornographic, and in some cases, illegal content, and this online footprint put him into contact with known sex offenders.

The role of the court is to determine whether people are able to make decisions and, if not, to decide what is in their best interests. On the one hand, while more vulnerable individuals might be putting themselves in danger with untethered internet access, it was made clear that access to this technology is not only a right guaranteed by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, but it plays a crucial role in social inclusion.

“Advances in cyber and digital technology continue to outrun society’s ability to monitor or control it, and, to an extent, the law’s ability to keep pace with its development,” said Mr Justice Cobb. “The internet is, or can be, a dangerous place; it has a dark side, where dehumanising and illegal material (including images, pseudo-images, videos, live-streaming and text) is all too readily accessible. Internet abuse can take many forms: bullying, harassment, child sexual abuse, sexual grooming, trafficking, trolling and the theft of personal identity among them. These activities thrive when they are left unchecked. Ironically, dating ‘apps’ and social media sites may feel safe to some because they pose no immediate threat of violence; however, it is well-recognised that the more insidious threats posed by sexual predators, and those who prey on the wider vulnerabilities of the young, the learning disabled, the needy and the incautious, are no less (indeed they are potentially more) harmful at least in part because of their pervasive nature.”

In a judgment which has far-reaching implications for both children and adults, the judge had to decide how to determine whether someone has the capacity to understand the consequences of their internet and social media usage.

Because of the 21-year-old in question’s difficulty with flexible adaptive reasoning, he lacked this understanding. As a result, restrictions could be used in his best interests under the Mental Capacity Act 2005 to keep him safe.

It was decided that his iPad usage was to be supervised by carers and limited each day and his mobile contract was financially capped and had no internet access, and staff could check his mobile to support him if he received any unwanted text messages and to ensure he was not engaging in inappropriate communications. These restrictions will enable him to safely use the internet and social media, protecting him from online risks.

At a time when the risks of using the internet and social media are very much the centre of political attention, the judgment will go some way to enable people to safely use the internet. The Judge also highlighted that “while it is a crime to incite hatred because of religion or race, it is not presently a crime to incite hatred because of disability” adding that those pressing for change in legislation in this regard have “a compelling case”.

The School of Law is immensely proud of the students that worked on this case and would like to especially thank Liz Perry for supporting the parents in these proceedings.

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