Offence of encouraging or assisting serious self-harm

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Offence of encouraging or assisting serious self-harm

The Online Safety Act 2023 creates a new offence of encouraging or assisting serious self-harm. The offence applies from 31 January 2024.

What is the new offence?

A person commits an offence if:

they do a relevant act capable of encouraging or assisting the serious self-harm of another person;

and their act was intended to encourage or assist the serious self-harm of another person.

"serious self-harm" means self-harm amounting to, in England and Wales and Northern Ireland, grievous bodily harm within the meaning of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861.

The Act defines the means of communication by which a person "does a relevant act", which includes in-person or electronic communications, publications, correspondence, and the sending or giving of items with stored electronic data.

The offence carries a maximum penalty of 5 years imprisonment.

Why is this offence needed?

The government explained the need for a new offence in these terms:

"I am aware of particular concerns around content online which encourages vulnerable people to self-harm. While the child safety duties in the bill will protect children, vulnerable adults may remain at risk of exposure to this abhorrent content. I am therefore committing to making the encouragement of self-harm illegal. The government will bring forward in this bill proposals to create an offence of sending a communication that encourages serious self-harm.

This new offence will ensure that trolls sending such messages to a person, regardless of the recipient’s age, face the consequences for their vile actions."

The new offence appears to have strong support from interest groups.

The Molly Rose Foundation, a suicide-prevention charity aimed at young people, said it also supported the proposed new offence. The charity was established by the friends and family of Molly Russell, a 14-year-old girl who took her own life after viewing images promoting suicide and self-harm. In September 2022 a coroner ruled that content Molly had viewed relating to depression, self-harm and suicide “had contributed to her death in a more than minimal way”. The foundation said the proposed new offence would be a “significant move”.

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