Convicted paedophile Mark Sutherland loses landmark case over sting

15 July 2020, 09:30 | Updated: 15 July 2020, 15:44

A convicted paedophile, jailed after being caught in a sting by a so-called paedophile hunting group, has lost a landmark case, after the UK's highest court ruled the use of such evidence was lawful.

The interests of children have priority over any interest a paedophile could have in being allowed to engage in criminal conduct, the Supreme Court ruled.

The decision has widespread implications on whether prosecutors can rely on such evidence in criminal trials.

The case was brought by Mark Sutherland, who was caught by a paedophile hunting group in Scotland.

In 2018, Sutherland, 37, made contact on the gay dating app Grindr with someone who claimed to be a 13-year-old boy.

The boy was in fact an adult, a decoy used by the paedophile hunting group Groom Resisters Scotland.

Sutherland sent sexual messages and images to the person and they later arranged to meet at a bus station in Glasgow.

He was caught after he turned up at the bus station and was met by members of the group, who filmed the encounter and posted the images online.

Sutherland was arrested, prosecuted using evidence gathered by the activist group and jailed for two years in August 2018.

He had previously been jailed for another incident, where he sent explicit images to a 12-year-old boy.

Sutherland brought a Supreme Court challenge, arguing that his right to a private life, enshrined in Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, had been breached.

At a hearing in June, a panel of five justices, including the court's president Lord Reed, heard evidence from Sutherland's legal team that police and prosecutors gave "tacit encouragement" to such groups by often using the information they gather.

Gordon Jackson QC, representing Sutherland, told the court: "The police are aware that there a number of hunter organisations operating in Scotland and the UK and evidence submitted from these organisations has led to a number of criminal investigations and convictions."

There is "disquiet" about the work of such groups, he said.

The barrister argued that what hunter groups were likely to take from the fact that many cases were prosecuted was that, even if there were "reams of documentation", "at the end of the day, we're pretty sure if we carry on doing it, they'll prosecute".

Alison di Rollo QC, Solicitor General for the Crown Office, which opposed the appeal, argued that the criminal prosecution of sexual conduct between an adult and a child "does not engage" someone's right to privacy.

"There is no right to respect for such behaviour in a democratic society," she said.

The Supreme Court case comes just weeks after police warned paedophile hunting groups were likely to step up activities as the COVID-19 lockdown is lifted.

Across the UK, more than 90 named paedophile hunter groups are believed to be active.

Before the lockdown, they carried out an average of a 100 stings each month.

The number of stings has fallen to just a handful over the past few months.

But Assistant Chief Constable Dan Vajzovic, the National Police Chiefs' Council lead for online child sex exploitation activist groups, said so-called paedophile hunters were still active and may be sitting on about 160 cases.

Mr Vajzovic said: "During the first month of the lockdown, just 16 incidents were recorded, with 15 of those limited to 'e-activism', where evidence gathered in chat logs is passed to police."

Jo Stubbs, who has helped run a paedophile hunting team in Nottingham for several years, said she "expected a lot of teams to be picking up where they left off", once the lockdown is fully lifted.