Legal experts have warned that a Supreme Court ruling in a case involving paedophile hunters could be viewed as a “green light” for vigilante groups.

Senior lawyers have raised serious concerns about the “dangerous” actions of paedophile hunters following the judgment in the case of convicted sex offender Mark Sutherland, who was snared by a group posing online as a 13-year-old boy.

The decision, which saw the court reject Sutherland’s claims that the use of evidence from Groom Resisters Scotland breached his human rights, has also led to Police Scotland urging the public not to take the law into their own hands.

Sutherland’s lawyers argued that the covert investigation, and its use by the Crown Office, breached his right to a private life.

However, the court found that the interests of children take priority.

The case has been claimed as a “victory” by Groom Resisters, however Advocate Brian McConnachie QC, a former senior prosecutor, said there are serious concerns within the legal community about such groups.

He said: “The major concern I have is that these groups are now likely to consider that they have the green light to do what they want, effectively. 

“I also have concerns that groups such as this might consider that they should perhaps have the power to administer punishment and this will lead to situations we’ve seen before – people being driven out of their houses, or images being published on social media and so on.

“And there is also a fear that this might encourage vigilante groups in connection with other crimes.”

Mr McConnachie added that when police carry out operations like this, they have to operate under strict controls, while paedophile hunter groups can take action “unfettered by any controls”.

“The problem is all of these groups are unregulated in any sense,” he said.

Solicitor Advocate John Scott QC added that the judgment “hardly discourages vigilante groups” and claimed that the legal system has to walk a fine line between prosecuting cases when evidence is presented and discouraging such activity.

He said: “Real care has to be taken by the courts to say we’re not excusing this, but we’re not letting a paedophile go as a result of it.

“These groups may think they have right on their side, but no one is entitled to take the law into their own hands. Society does not need the wolf pack or the vigilantes. 

“They actually get in the way of the police doing their job, they run the risk of - at some point - the court throwing out a case because of what they have done, and they run the risk of innocent people wrongly being identified by them.”

Thomas Ross QC said that while he saw no problem with groups posing as children online and then handing over information to the police as soon as contact is made, there is concern when vigilantes decide to go further than that.

Sutherland was convicted in August 2018 of attempting to communicate indecently with an older child.

The 37-year-old had been messaging someone on Grindr who claimed to be a 13-year-old boy.

He sent explicit pictures and made arrangements to meet the “boy”, who was in fact 48-year-old Paul Devine, a member of Groom Resisters Scotland.

When Sutherland turned up at Partick Bus Station in Glasgow, he was met with two members of the group who confronted him and broadcast the meeting on social media.

Police were called and the group handed over their evidence.

Sutherland, who had previously been jailed for sending explicit pictures to a 12-year-old boy, went on to lodge his appeal at the UK’s highest court.

Lord Sales delivered his judgment via videolink on Wednesday and stated that the panel of five justices found that there was no interference with the accused’s rights under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act.

He said this was for two reasons - the first being that “the activity in question should be capable of respect”, and that children also have rights.
Lord Sales said the state had “a special responsibility to protect children against sexual exploitation by adults”.

“This indicates that there is no protection under Article 8 for the communications by the accused in this case.” he said.

“The interests of children have priority over any interest a paedophile could have in being allowed to engage in the criminal conduct in issue here.”

Data from HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS) shows that almost half of online grooming cases result from the activities of “unregulated and untrained” vigilante groups.

In its report in February 2020, the Inspectorate stated: “A more robust proactive capability on the part of Police Scotland would reduce the opportunities for these groups to operate.”

Police Scotland said child protection is a priority for the force and will always be thoroughly investigated by officers.

Detective Chief Superintendent Samantha McCluskey said: “Police Scotland will always respond when information is received that a child or young person may be at risk of harm with a focus on identifying and mitigating any risk posed.

“It is understandable that people want to protect children from harm but we would ask them not to take the law into their own hands. Revealing the identity of suspected offenders can jeopardise the safety of individuals, their families and the wider public.

“We want to reassure communities that Police Scotland is fully committed to the investigation of child abuse, using our resources, locally and nationally, to protect Scotland’s children.”

The Crown Office said prosecutors will continue to take action where there is “sufficient, credible and admissible evidence”.