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New laws could be drawn up to punish online abusers after a report found victims are being failed because of an outdated list of offences criminals can be charged with. The Law Commission has called on the government to address a “lack of coherence” in current laws that are making it difficult for police and prosecutors to pursue offenders. Professor David Ormerod QC, the commissioner for criminal law, said it had not “kept pace with technological changes”. “As the internet and social media have become an everyday part of our lives, online abuse has become commonplace for many,” he added.

“We have identified areas of the criminal law most in need of reform in order to protect victims and hold perpetrators to account.”

The Law Commission is calling for a reform of existing laws covering offensive and abusive communications online, a review of how victims of online harassment can be protected, and of how personal privacy is being safeguarded on the internet.

People can currently be prosecuted for offences committed online using laws banning malicious communications, threats and inciting racial hatred but gaps were identified.

They included abusive and offensive communications that do not cross the line into direct threats, “pile on” harassment, and the misuse of private images and information.

Researchers found that women, young people, ethnic minorities and members of the LGBT+ community are most likely to be affected, and that misogynistic abuse “is particularly prevalent and damaging”.

After consulting with victims, campaigners and police, they listed effects of online abuse including depression, anxiety, feelings of shame, loneliness and distress.

The report said it can lead to suicide and self-harm in the most extreme cases, financial loss, job loss and “wider societal harms”.

Women’s charities and campaigners welcomed the proposals, saying that online abuse was not being taken as seriously as that in the “real world” despite evidence of a link between the two arenas. Read more

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