Insights Government to amend Online Safety Bill to criminalise encouragement of self-harm

Following its announcement that it would amend the Online Safety Bill to criminalise “deepfakes” and the sharing of intimate images without consent (see item above), the Government also announced that it would amend the Bill to criminalise the encouragement of self-harm. This follows the tragic death of 14-year-old Molly Russell who took her own life after viewing self-harm content.

In its Modernising Communications Offences report July 2021, the Law Commission recommended that encouraging or assisting serious self-harm should be made an offence as part of a suite of new or reformed criminal offences to protect victims of online abuse:

  • A new “harm-based” communications offence to replace the offences within s 127(1) of the Communications Act 2003 and the Malicious Communications Act 1988;
  • a new offence of encouraging or assisting serious self-harm;
  • a new offence of cyberflashing; and
  • new offences of sending knowingly false communications, threatening communications, and making hoax calls to the emergency services, to replace aspects of the 1988 Act and s 127(2) of the 2003 Act.

The Law Commission also recommended that intentionally sending flashing images to a person with epilepsy (with the intention of inducing a seizure) should be a criminal offence.

In its interim response to the report, the Government announced it would implement the Commission’s recommendations for the harm-based communications offence, the knowingly false communications offence, and the threatening communications offence as part of the Online Safety Bill.

In addition to those offences, the Commission’s recommended cyberflashing offence was also included in the Bill, and the Government has recently tabled an amendment to the Bill to include the Commission’s recommended offence of sending flashing images with intent to cause harm.

The Government has now also announced it will implement the recommendation to criminalise the encouragement of serious self-harm. The Law Commission explains that its recommended offence would target intentional encouragement or assistance of self-harm at a high threshold, equivalent to grievous bodily harm, in order to combat malicious behaviour deliberately encouraging vulnerable people to harm themselves. To read the Law Commission’s press release in full, click here.