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Queen Mary law student advice centre leads way in battle against revenge porn

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Students to tour London secondary schools in bid to educate teenagers about recently legislated criminal offence

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Law students at Queen Mary, University of London have moved to the forefront of advising on the rapidly evolving legal position around revenge porn.

Officials at the law school’s legal advice service have told Legal Cheek that as of the next academic year, it will send students to local schools to raise awareness of the problem among secondary students.

It is the latest move in the advice centre’s bid to make a concerted push regarding a murky and difficult area of law. And it comes against the backdrop of legislation hitting the statue books last February that criminalises some forms of revenge porn and creates maximum sentences of two years in prison for convicted offenders.

Queen Mary launched a bespoke Twitter feed specifically to open debate on the issue at the beginning of the year, and a PhD student will be speaking at a London conference on the subject later this week.

According to advice service head Julie Pinborough, the student-operated unit currently receives about six queries a month from those alleging they are victims of revenge porn. Pinborough says complaints come from both men and women, but the latter make up about 70% of the queries.

The advice service currently has six law students dedicated to dealing with revenge porn cases, with that allocation set to increase by two at the beginning of the new academic year. London law firm Mishcon de Reya provides specialist assistance to the service in relation to revenge porn issues, with media litigation associate Emma Woollcott taking specific responsibility.

The efforts at Queen Mary’s law school also fall against the backdrop of a potentially groundbreaking civil legal action in the English courts.

Chrissy Chambers, a 24-year-old American has launched a landmark action against her former partner, alleging that he posted pornographic images of her without her consent after their relationship finished. Last week, The Guardian newspaper reported that Chambers has instructed Ann Olivarius, the senior partner of London and New York niche litigation law firm McAllister Olivarius.

The legal team as brought the case in this jurisdiction because Chambers’s boyfriend — whom the newspaper did not name — is British and was living in the UK at the time he allegedly posted the images.

Olivarius -– who graduated from Yale law school in 1986, having previously been a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford — has an established history of acting in difficult gender and sex cases.

She played a crucial role in a landmark US civil rights case, Alexander v Yale, which for the first time found that sexual harassment within an American university was illegal. The firm’s website states: “Since Alexander v Yale she has continued to break new ground and work on major cases in the area of discrimination and employment law. In 2012 she was included by the American Civil Liberties Union on its list of the most influential people in the history of Title IX, the US anti-discrimination law.”

A “revenge porn” law went on the statute books for England and Wales in April, creating an offence of distributing private sexual images of someone without that person’s consent and with the intention of causing distress.

However, as The Guardian article pointed out, that legislation will not assist Chambers, as the alleged posting of images involving her was distributed well before the law was enacted and it the legislation is not retrospective.

Nonetheless, Olivarius told the newspaper:

“We will take this case as far as the law allows. We know what has to get done, we know this is wrong, we know that society should not tolerate this, it’s not acceptable behaviour, but still they get away with it all the time.”

Queen Mary’s Pinborough also flags up loopholes in the recent UK legislation. She says for a crime to be committed, a pornographic image must be distributed with the express intention of causing distress.

Therefore, if the distributor commercialises the image — in other words seeks to make money from it – then the primary purpose of posting is financial. In those cases, arguably no crime will have been committed.

Public Policy Exchange is scheduled to host an event on 10 June titled “A new approach for tackling revenge pornography”. Speaking on the panel with Olivarius will be Queen Mary PhD student Ksenia Bakina.

2 Comments

Not Amused

I’m not sure that it is ever helpful to use the Courts for political activism. I know the States has a long history of this, but I’m not sure we do, or that we ought to. Just practically speaking, it’s not for judges to pretend they can make whole new areas of the law. Common law is about mild or incremental advancement. This looks much more like straightforward attempts to create new law. That is politicising the judges and as well as being bad, it is unfair. Quite rightly most first instance judges go “how on earth do I know” so the case fails at first instance. Now it may succeed later at trial, but that’s the way most ‘human rights’ political cases have gone.

Moreover the civil law system inevitably exposes somebody to an adverse costs finding of that lost trial. Somebody is going to have to pay the bill.

In this instance if the wronged individual loses the ex-partner will probably have a legal bill. Who will pay that? If the wronged individual pays it then weren’t they just used by others for a political purpose? If the organisation pays it then isn’t that just a waste of scarce charity resources? If no one pays it then the ex-partner suffers huge loss and is the real victim.

Issues surrounding cost recovery in the civil courts is always morally troubling. This is because no more than 70% is *ever* recovered. So the ex-partner would always be making a 30% loss on his/her costs in the event that they win. That’s pretty unfair.

For the same reasons, I’m not convinced this is very wise at all even if they win. Assuming it succeeds all we get is case law saying there is now a common law right to sue for loss. Using the civil courts is always expensive. It is extremely unlikely that 99% of the victims of this will have any cash at all – so why would they even try to fund a case? They wouldn’t. If they did then the same problem of ‘who pays the costs if they lose’ applies.

I can see why Mishcon are interested. If they establish a common law right then they will make profit from the 1% of wronged individuals with money (generally people called either ‘celebrities’ or ‘Mishcon’s current client base’). Now there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But maybe the people who can afford to fund cases should be doing this and not charities.

I think this is good intentions leading you to do something foolish. Those who want a change would do better to lobby for changes in drafting of the Criminal Statute (if there are deficiencies, and that is a pretty big IF, because we’ve yet to see what the appellate courts says about any of this). Ultimately it is not something I think a charity or pro bono unit should be doing. It’s political, with a little p, but it is also ill thought out.

Victims of this need to go to the police. After that they should go to their local MP if there is a problem with their case. The civil courts are the last place that anyone should be heading with this issue. Given lots of QM kids do this in order to improve their CVs for the future (again there is absolutely nothing wrong with that), I think it is important that they realise that not everyone sees this as an unquestioned good. There are lots of much better pro-bono causes out there that don’t involve putting vulnerable people at risk, politicising the courts or creating a new revenue stream for law firms.

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Anonymous

Pursuing an individual who lacks the resources to satisfy a judgment is risky business.

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