R v Nimmo & Sorley (2014)

R v Nimmo & Sorley (2014) changed the perception of social media offences in England and Wales. It was a decision that saw the first custodial sentences issued to the defendants for their sustained abusive messages made via social media platform Twitter to two women – Caroline Criado-Perez and Stella Creasy MP – for campaigning to have women on banknotes. R v Nimmo & Sorley is a legal landmark in the prosecution of social media offences. It is also a legal landmark for women because it represents an important step forward in the recognition of online harassment, abuse and other forms of threatening behaviour, from which women suffer disproportionately.

Criado-Perez and Stella Creasy found themselves victims of multiple abusive messages sent through social media, including death and rape threats. At its height Criado-Perez received around 50 abusive Tweets an hour for a 12-hour period. This was partially a backlash against the notion of ‘swapping’ a man for a woman on a banknote to introduce a notion of equality, but is symptomatic of the wider prevalence of online abuse. The most severe threats to Criado-Perez and Creasy were sent by John Nimmo and Isabella Sorley who publicly abused Criado-Perez and Creasy.

Both women reported the Tweets to the police – first via Twitter and later in person. However, despite the police’s arguable over-reaction in the earlier case of DPP v Chambers in 2012, (the Twitter joke case) their response was one of in-action and indifference. Creasy was told in response to reporting via Twitter message to the police, that it was insufficient to launch an investigation. Moreover, in deciding to charge Nimmo and Sorley under the Communications Act 2003 for improper use of a public communications network, the CPS focused on the medium of the messages, rather than the threats they contained.

Nimmo and Sorley pleaded guilty to sending ‘menacing’ tweets and both received custodial sentences of eight and 12 weeks respectively. Commenting on their actions in his sentencing comments, Judge Howard Riddle, noted that … the serious harm caused by the offending behaviour makes it inappropriate to impose anything other than an immediate custodial sentence …The harm caused is very high’. Creasy installed panic buttons in her home. For Criado-Perez the effects of the harassment were ‘life-changing’. She spent time and money making herself untraceable, and describes the messages as ‘imprinted’ on her mind, and that she didn’t think she ‘will ever be free of them’.

Of course, the trend in social media use – and abuse – was not something witnessed for the first time in R v Nimmo & Sorley. But since 2014, the explosion in online abuse, harassment, and all forms of online violence against women (OVAW) has continued to grow – with law, policy, and enforcement initiatives failing to deliver substantive change despite the – now – high profile nature of OVAW. The latest legal ‘iteration’ of efforts to address online behaviours – the Online Safety Bill – is not (yet) a landmark, but hopes remain high that it offers some potential for addressing OVAW.