Online hate crimes should be treated as seriously as offences in person according to new guidance for prosecutors in England and Wales.
The pledge to toughen the response to online abuse is part of revised Crown Prosecution Service rules for hate crimes.
The guidance also refers for the first time to incidents specifically against bisexual people.
The CPS says it is setting out more clearly what victims should expect.
The new legal guidance and accompanying CPS public statements guide prosecutors deciding whether to charge suspects of crimes motivated by racial, sexual or religious hatred or because the victim was disabled.
On online hate crime, the CPS says prosecutors must recognise that modern communications provide opportunities for hate crimes – and the cases should be pursued with the same “robust and proactive approach used with offline offending”.
It says exceptions to prosecution should be made in the case of children who may not appreciate the potential harm they have caused by publishing something online that amounts to a hate crime.
Until now, CPS guidance on hate crime motivated by sexual orientation has had a general focus on all victims. The new guidance specifically refers to bisexual victims because their experiences can be different, particularly if they report being victimised by gay men or lesbians.
Director of Public Prosecutions Alison Saunders said: “Hate crime has a corrosive effect on our society and that is why it is a priority area for the CPS. It can affect entire communities, forcing people to change their way of life and live in fear.
“These documents take account of the current breadth and context of offending to provide prosecutors with the best possible chance of achieving justice for victims. They also let victims and witnesses know what they should expect from us.”
‘Slow and cumbersome’
According to the latest figures, the CPS completed more than 15,000 hate crime prosecutions in 2015-16, the highest number ever. A third of those convicted saw their sentence increased because of the hate crime element of the offence – also a record.
However, in the same year, the number of cases being referred by police to prosecutors for a decision fell by almost 10%.
Nik Noone, chief executive of Galop, a charity that campaigns against anti-LGBT violence and hate crime, said its own research suggested many victims did not have confidence in the police to report online hate attacks.
“The threshold for prosecuting online hate crime is very high, and the investigative process is often too slow and cumbersome to respond to the fast-moving online world,” she said.
“The police find it difficult to investigate online hate crime effectively, leading to cases frequently ending in no further action.”