Fighting hate crime through legal reform

Chara Bakalis

Principal Lecturer in Law, Chara Bakalis, has made a powerful and lasting contribution to the fight against hate crime in the UK and internationally. Victims of hate crimes – including online hate speech – are better protected as a result of her work with policy-makers to ensure that hate crime laws are clear, comprehensive, based on sound legal principles, and designed to keep pace with future developments in technology.

Thanks to Chara’s work, legislators have a better legal understanding of what hate crime is and the harm it causes, as well as a fair and consistent approach to deciding which offences fall within the scope of the law.

Identifying weaknesses and inconsistencies

Social media on laptop and phone

Fighting ‘hate’ in society has been a key focus in the UK since the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993. But incremental changes to the law over the years, rather than keeping it relevant, had resulted in inconsistencies and a lack of grounding in sound legal principles.

Chara has worked with policy makers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to review existing legislation originally designed for the offline world, as well as to develop new thinking around the growing problem of online hate on social media platforms.

She identified several gaps and weaknesses, including the lack of a sound justification for the existence of hate crime, a focus on conduct rather than the harm it caused, and not enough emphasis on tackling the issues caused by the growth of the internet and social media.

Increasing protection for victims

Chara’s research identifies the differences between online and offline hate speech, and advocates for separate legislation to distinguish between the two.

Her work recommends the replacement of outdated terms like ‘grossly offensive’ and ‘indecent’ with modern terminology focusing on the harm caused rather than the nature of the conduct. It’s an approach which removes the potential for conflict with laws protecting freedom of expression.

She has argued for a clearer and more principled definition of what constitutes hate crime, linked to the protected characteristics set out in the Equality Act 2010 to guard against discrimination. Her definition seeks to build a wider understanding of the harm caused by online hate, putting forward a framework for identifying the ‘bystanders’ who, although not the direct targets of the hate, are also harmed by it.

“An explanation based on equality is able to show why hatred of specified groups causes a different type of harm to society than that of the underlying offence: the harm is the damage to equality that results from hateful behaviour.”

Chara Bakalis

Reforming existing laws and shaping new ones

Chara’s findings were used by the Law Commission as the basis for its review of the sections of the Communications Act 2003 and the Malicious Communications Act 1988 governing hate speech. Her recommendations for change were also included in the Commission’s report to the Ministry of Justice looking at how online communications should be reformed to protect people from harmful online behaviour.

As a direct result of her analysis of existing provisions relating to online communications, the Law Commission has recommended that existing hate crime provisions in England and Wales be replaced with a single offence of causing emotional and psychological harm. A focus on the harm caused, rather than how offensive the communication was, protects minority groups while maintaining people’s general right to freedom of expression. This new offence also recognises that harm may be caused to people other than the direct target of the hate.

Chara’s expertise was further called on by Judge Desmond Marrinan during his independent review of hate crime legislation in Northern Ireland, published in December 2020. Her research findings on online hate were credited with inspiring and informing many of Marrinan’s final recommendations.

International impact

Chara’s work has also been recognised internationally. In 2020, she was commissioned by the Council of Europe to produce a report on their behalf for the Armenian Ministry of Justice with recommendations for reform of Armenian law on hate speech.

Image credits:

Banner photo by Tess on Unsplash
Social media photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash