Recent years have seen more and more citizen groups banding together to hunt down perverted individuals grooming children online. These are members of the public so concerned by the predatory behaviours of paedophiles; they set up fake social media profiles of children to catch these perpetrators in the act.

Generally referred to as ‘paedophile hunters’, UK groups such as Dark Justice, Guardians of the North and Silent Justice have stepped in to do something against the despicable predators targeting minors for illegal sexual activity.  With the numerous budget cuts to police forces across the UK and ongoing challenge for police to provide the resources and manpower to track down and stop such predators, these groups feel they are able to help protect children.

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In the past, official statements from both police and child protection organisations have always highlighted how actions from such groups working outside of the police could potentially harm investigations into childhood abuse and online grooming.

Criticism has centered on the concern over complex cases being jeopardized by individuals who do not have official training in handling evidence and that their methods may stray into entrapment. However, the rise in evidence handed over from these groups providing the cornerstone in a case against a paedophile cannot be denied. In figures obtained by the BBC, the number of court cases using evidence obtained from paedophile hunter groups rose from 11% in 2014 to a staggering 44% in 2016.

Often referred to as ‘vigilantes’, most prefer to be known as paedophile hunters stating that where vigilantes give out their own form of punishments against those breaking the law, they do not. Instead, they catch these criminals in the act and report them immediately to police, providing full statements and handing over all the evidence they have collected.

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Dark Justice, a two-man operation founded in 2014 based in Newcastle Upon Tyne, is one of the prominent groups in the UK. They highlight on their website, “Some people are sceptical about what we do and how we do it. We’re not vigilantes who operate above the law, we’re concerned citizens who work closely with the police to help effect change and to keep our children safe!” Furthermore, they provide figures of 120 potential sex offenders arrested and 56 sex offenders convicted as a direct result of their work.

Similarly, Guardians of the North who were established in 2014 state on their website, “Some often refer to Guardians of the North as a ‘Vigilante’ group that have decided to take the law into their own hands but a more fitting label would be that they are a ‘public service’. The Guardians offer their service and continue their work because the Police Forces are so stretched and so underfunded that they cannot realistically pay decoys to do what the Guardians do.”

The operations of these groups all generally follow the same method. They pose as children as young as 13-years-old online and simply wait for contact from paedophiles who trawl social media sites looking for vulnerable children to engage with. If that adult begins to communicate in a sexual manner, all state they highlight how old the ‘teenager’ they are talking to is, to ensure there is no doubt this adult is fully aware they are engaging with a child and not another adult.

Once communication is established, those behind the hunter groups stress that they do not encourage any sexual lines of communication. They leave it to the predator behind the screen to make the first move and record all communications they receive. When a meeting is suggested, they arrive armed with a camera to film the individual’s response when they realise they have been discovered and caught. Most call the police as soon as the adult actually turns up at the meeting place believing they are there to meet a child for sex.

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In April 2017, the Guardian reported on a court ruling which confirmed groups who identify themselves as paedophile hunters are able to continue their work with “no legal requirement for the activities to be subject to controls”.  The ruling came after two men who were caught by the group Dark Justice after arranging to meet minors for alleged sexual activity filed a court case claiming their methods and the evidence gathered “diminished the integrity of the court process.”

“At the end of the day, these people come to us. These people make first contact. These people make it sexual and these people ask to meet.”  – Dark Justice

Vice asks an interesting and pertinent question in their article on the topic published in July 2017, “When and why did our society shift so dramatically from one that ignores child abuse, to one that quite deliberately, and so dynamically, addresses it?” they ask. The past years of British child abuse scandals from Maria Colwell to Baby P and the almost constant unveiling of celebrities and once loved TV personalities as vile perverts who preyed on young children and adolescents, has no doubt got a lot to do with it, they write.

The lack of official training and authorisation for paedophile hunter groups is the problem for many, with the Ineqe Group, an Irish company specialising in safeguarding and child protection both online and offline, reaffirming a suggestion that has been around for a while. A suggestion that special constables, volunteers for the police forces, should also be trained as digital detectives, doing the work these hunters are doing but after being fully vetted and trained and go forward working within police authorised boundaries.

Last month it was announced by Chief Constable Simon Bailey, the national lead for child protection, that police may need to look at working with vigilante groups in the future. It seems the public is in favour of such action. In research by YouGov, where almost 3500 people were questioned in September 2017, 58% of Britons “believe it would be worth police working with vigilante paedophile-hunters if it means they catch more predatory paedophiles.” With just 25% saying they would prefer police to find alternative methods due to concerns over encouraging vigilantism.

The videos of alleged paedophiles being confronted by members of these groups are popular online with thousands of views on each posted across social media. People like to see those seeking to sexually abuse children caught and humiliated and want this backed up by police and legal action against them. A future where the work of these groups can continue in partnership with the police is one which could make significant impacts on the shocking levels of online grooming currently taking place.