Fianna Fáil TD for Cavan and Monaghan, Brendan Smith has called for an increased cross-government and cross-agency approach to tackle the escalation of bullying both online and in person.
Deputy Brendan Smith commented, “There is an urgent need for statutory agencies and Departments to take a new approach to the whole area of the crime of bullying, and at least put in place some confidential lines to ensure that there is a cross-government and a cross-agency approach so that this area can be addressed.
“We know of the bullying that is happening on social media and it is a blight on society. Many young people are being bullied constantly and are unable to get away from it.”
In a Dáil question to the Minister for Justice, The Cavan and Monaghan TD called on the Minister to state what proposals there are to have consultations with other Departments and statutory agencies to deal with the increasing level of bullying.
Deputy Brendan Smith added: “I know that there is no simple answer, but I would hope that the Minister’s Department could be central to a whole-of-government approach taken to ensure that the requests and suggestions of families, who have gone through so much in their lived experience of the awful loss of a young person and do not want to see it happen to others, could be taken on board in the hope that it will help avoid such loss of life or suffering to individuals. It is an area that we need to address as a matter of urgency.”
In response, the Minister for Justice stated that the issue of bullying generally requires a response within community and institutional – including schools – contexts, rather than an automatic resort to criminal sanction.
The Minister continued: “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 tackle bullying and harassment in younger people, while still leaving the door open for charges to be brought in more extreme cases.
The Minister added: “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.
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.
Deputy Brendan Smith’s party colleague, and Minister for Education, Norma Foley, 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.
Please see attached Dáil Question and statement from Deputy Brendan Smith