Coco’s Law – Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Act

August 23, 2023

In May 2023, Minister Simon Harris launched the Threat to Share awareness campaign which aimed to highlight intimate image abuse.  “Intimate Image Abuse” describes the posting of an intimate image online or the sharing it by any other means, without the consent of the person in the image. An intimate image is any type of image of a person who is naked or engaged in a sexual act. It also includes any image claiming to be of an intimate part of a person’s body or an image of underwear covering that part of their body. It can refer to a picture or video taken with or without the knowledge of the person in the image. It doesn’t matter if the person in the image willingly took it and sent it to someone they trusted, if it is then shared with others without their consent, a criminal offence has taken place. The goal of the campaign is to empower the Irish public and, most importantly, victims of intimate image abuse, by making them aware of the law and protections available to them if intimate images of them have been shared in an abusive way.

In 2021, Ireland adopted the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Act, known as “Coco’s Law”. Tragically, in 2018, Nicole ‘Coco’ Fox took her own life aged 21 after being relentlessly bullied online and abused physically for three years. At the time of Nicole’s death there was no legislation in Ireland that could hold Nicole’s abusers accountable for their actions. Since her heartbreaking death, her mother, Jackie Fox, has campaigned tirelessly for legislation to better protect others from online bullying and abuse.

Two years on from this legislation being passed however, research found that half of the population are unaware that threatening to publish intimate photographs of someone else is a crime. The Threat to Share awareness campaign was launched as part of the Department of Justice's Zero Tolerance Strategy for domestic, sexual and gender-based violence.

Coco’s Law created two new offences which criminalise the non-consensual distribution of intimate images:

  • The first offence deals with the distribution or publication of intimate images without consent and with intent to cause harm.  The penalties applicable can be an unlimited fine and/or 7 years imprisonment.
  • The second, less serious offence deals with the taking, distribution or publication of intimate images without consent even if there is no specific intent to cause harm. This offence will carry a maximum penalty of a €5,000 fine and/or 12 months imprisonment.

The new legislation has given the Gardaí the tools they need to make sure that those who commit this abusive crime can be prosecuted and, if prosecuted, the Courts will have sentences available to them that reflect the level of harm these crimes cause to their victims.

Threatening to share intimate imagery can be a feature of coercive control in relationships. The law states that if the offender was in an intimate relationship with the victim, then this could be considered an aggravating factor for the purposes of sentencing. There is also the worrying development that intimate image abuse is being used by scammers purely for monetary or financial gain. The development was recently discussed by comedy duo the 2 Johnnies in their podcast episode entitled “Sextortion”. The episode delves into a young man’s horrific experience of being duped when he was 18 years old. The man explained that he was followed by someone on Instagram and upon following back he received a message almost immediately. They chatted and quickly moved to Snapchat where the “girl” in question changed the conversation by sending a nude photograph and asking the man to do the same. As soon as he obliged, the image was screenshotted and he was blackmailed for €10,000. This all occurred in the space of hours. Numerous men and women also came forward to the podcast with emails of their experience which detail stories of blackmail, fear and utter terror.

As this is now a criminal offence, if someone has posted an intimate image of you, or an image they claim to be of you, without your consent, you can report it to the Gardaí or to Hotline.ie. Hotline is a website, set up by the Gardaí, that has been working to reduce the prevalence of illegal content online. Users can securely and anonymously report suspected illegal content encountered online. Often people are embarrassed that this has happened to them and would rather do nothing then report it. Hotline’s anonymity aspect is hugely beneficial in this respect. Hotline will work with Internet Service Providers to get the content removed as quickly as possible. Hotline will also notify the Gardaí immediately to begin the process of a criminal investigation where this is necessary.

It is of course also open to anyone to make a report directly to the Gardaí. There is now a Divisional Protective Services Unit established in every Garda division across the country. This ensures that people who are subjected to crimes of a sexual nature will be dealt with by trained officers who will provide a consistently high standard of specialist, sensitive, professional and expert assistance.

Recent statistics in April 2023 showed that to date, Gardaí have commenced more than 100 prosecutions so far under the new law. This is a promising development as only 28 prosecutions had started by March 2022. In particular, 185 reports have been received from Hotline. This growth in prosecution shows the necessity for the legislation in the first place and will help empower victims to know they can make a criminal complaint in these cases which may then lead to a prosecution.

Ireland has led the way in the fight against cyberbullying, and it is clear that the introduction of EU-wide legislation to tackle cyber violence and cyberbullying cannot wait any longer. Jackie Fox and Maria Walsh MEP have led this battle. Maria Walsh MEP was speaking recently during a plenary debate in the European Parliament and she appealed to her fellow MEPs to come together to ensure Coco’s Law is put in place throughout the European Union. She noted that, terrifyingly, research in 2021 showed that suicide is the second leading cause of death for people under the age of 19 in the EU.  She said that cyber violence and cyberbullying will not stop until the necessary laws and legal consequences are put in place.

 

If you have been affected by the contents of this article, there are many services around Ireland who provide support to people who have been a victim of sexual violence and/or domestic abuse.

  • West Cork Women Against Violence 027 53847
  • An Garda Síochána Skibbereen 028 23088 Bantry 028 20860 Clonakilty 023 8821570
  • National 24-hour Rape Crisis Helpline 1800 778 888
  • Women’s Aid 1800 341 900
  • Men’s Aid Ireland 01 554 3811
  • Male Domestic Abuse Advice Helpline 1800 816 588

 

 

By Aislinn Collins Solicitor

 

This article is for general information purposes/general overview only and does not constitute legal or other professional advice.  We recommend seeking legal advice to interpret and advise on any aspect of the law.

 

August 2023 Wolfe & Co. LLP Solicitors

Market Street, Skibbereen, Co. Cork - web: www.wolfe.ie

Tel: 028-21177, e-mail: info@wolfe.ie