Bullying can come in many forms, but in public discourse it is usually about young people bullying each other. I think it’s important to point out that this generally requires a response within community and institutional - including schools - contexts, rather than an automatic resort to criminal sanction. The Government recognises that this is wider than simply a justice issue – it’s about various Departments and statutory agencies working together to combat this issue.
That said, this Government is acutely aware of the impact any kind of harassment can have on a victim and that harassment can take different forms and have different levels of severity.
That is why Coco's Law, otherwise known as the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Act 2020, not only introduced new offences but also broadened existing harassment offences and introduced stricter penalties for them.
Coco's Law provides for a new offence of sending, distributing or publishing a threatening or grossly offensive message by any means of communication with intent to cause harm to the victim, which means our legislation now covers once-off communications as well as harassment.
The definition of harassment includes harassing another person by persistently following, watching, pestering, besetting or communicating with or about them. The changes made by Coco’s Law to this offence have also ensured that communicating with or about a person by any means is covered – including through the use of social media or technology.
It also increases the maximum penalty for harassment from 7 years’ to 10 years’ to reflect the harm caused by the most serious forms of harassment.
If charges are to be brought under this act against a person 17 or younger, then the consent of the DPP is required. As noted earlier, this is a safeguard that was put in in recognition of the need to use other means to tackling bullying and harassment in younger people, while still leaving the door open for charges to be brought in more extreme cases.
When I commenced this legislation in February of this year I announced funding for the National Anti-Bullying Research and Resource Centre at DCU to establish a ‘Research Observatory on Cyberbullying’. This ‘Observatory’ will provide up-to-date research and advice as well as monitor the impact of anti-cyberbullying laws and regulations. It also aims to explore the impact of laws and regulations on those who engage in, or are targeted by, cyberbullying, cyberhate, and online harassment.
I also provided funding for the Webwise ‘Lockers’ programme to update their secondary school resources which promotes the autonomous, effective and safe use of the internet by young people. The funding has enabled Webwise to update the materials used in schools to include information about Coco’s Law.
The Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act provides for offences that cause harm to another person and also for the offence of making someone believe they are going to be harmed. If the perpetrator of an offence under this Act is a young person, they can be considered for admission to the Garda Diversion Programme, which operates under Part 4 of the Children Act 2001.
The Diversion measures specified in the Act include the administration of Garda cautions (in the presence of parents/guardians) and supervision by a Garda Juvenile Liaison Officer. In addition, a young person can be referred to a Youth Diversion Project funded by the Department which provide programmes and supports to enable young people to make positive behavioural changes.
It may be of interest to the Deputy to know that there are also new legislative proposals that will impact on this area.
The General Scheme of the Hate Crime Bill has been published and it will introduce aggravated forms of these offences where they are motivated by prejudice against protected characteristics. The protected characteristics under the Criminal Justice (Hate Crime) Bill 2021 are,
- Ethnic or national origin
- Sexual orientation
This legislation is currently being drafted by the Office of Parliamentary Counsel.
In addition to the legislation referenced above, separate legislation to include provision for an online safety commissioner has been proposed by the Department of Communications, Climate Action and the Environment, and the General Scheme of the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill was published earlier this year.
It contains provisions empowering the proposed Media Commission to make online safety codes; assess the compliance of online services with those safety codes; direct online services to make changes to their systems; processes and policies and design and seek to apply financial sanctions to services who fail to comply.
The online safety codes will set out how social media companies will have to deal with harmful content, such as cyberbullying.
Finally, the Deputy may be aware that the Minister for Education attended the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science recently to provide an update on a number of issues including the measures that are being taken to prevent and tackle bullying in schools. During the Minister’s appearance at the Joint Committee, she announced that the Department of Education will commence a review of the Department’s 2013 Action Plan on Bullying and the 2013 Anti-bullying Procedures for Primary and Post-primary Schools. The Minister also announced that during this school year, that the Department’s Inspectorate is prioritising monitoring and gathering information about the implementation of anti-bullying measures in schools across all its inspection types.