“Harm” in the Harmful Digital Communications Act

The recent decision of Justice Matthew Downs about the Harmful Digital Communications Act seems to be misunderstood.  Ben Hill in the NZ Herald went so far as to state that the decision said that  posting intimate images on Facebook met the harm threshold detailed in the act. Far from it.

Some clarification might be helpful. The case involved a prosecution under one of the sections of the Harmful Digital Communications Act. Because of that a couple of basic criminal law propositions applied. First, the burden of proof was on the prosecution. Secondly to obtain a conviction the prosecution had to prove each of the three elements of the charge beyond a reasonable doubt.

A criminal trial can be divided up into two main phases – the prosecution phase and the defence phase. If the prosecution fails to provide any or sufficient evidence of any one of the elements of a charge, the charge may be dismissed.

In the case under appeal that is the point the case reached. Was there evidence of harm – serious emotional distress – suffered by the complainant? The District Court Judge looked at what was available and concluded that although there was evidence of emotional distress, he was not satisfied that it had reached the “serious” point. Because he concluded that there was insufficient evidence to support one of the elements the case was dismissed.

If that evidence had been available – that is evidence where a reasonable fact-finder, properly applying the law, could convict – then the Judge would have called upon the defendant to ascertain if he had evidence to add to the mix. It does not mean that the defendant was presumed guilty or that he had a burden to prove his innocence. But his evidence could help the Judge in the next step in the reasoning process which would be to assess whether or not the evidence satisfied him beyond a reasonable doubt that the complainant had suffered serious emotional distress. That is a different line of enquiry to that of ascertaining whether the evidence was present in the first place.

When the case went before Justice Downs on appeal by the Police there were two lines of argument. One was that the test applied by the District Court Judge was too high. That argument was rejected by Justice Downs. The second argument was that the Judge had not evaluated the available evidence properly when he concluded that there was no evidence of serious emotional distress.

This was the crux of the case. The District Court Judge had taken reactions by the defendant to the posting of her intimate images on a Facebook page – loss of sleep, tears, possible time off work, embarrassment – and concluded that individually these did not amount to serious emotional distress. Justice Downs said that was not the proper approach. The Judge should have looked at the total effect of all of these elements and taken them collectively. In addition he should have had regard to the context – a relationship breakdown, an apparently controlling and jealous husband who had threatened to put the pictures online. Looking at these factors collectively Justice Downs concluded that they did amount to sufficient evidence of serious emotional distress and therefore the prosecution had established a case that the defendant had to answer.

So the case is about how to evaluate whether or not a post has caused harm. In that sense it could be said that it is “lawyers law”. But does this mean that the defendant is automatically guilty. It does not. The case has been sent back to the District Court and the case for the defendant will be presented and argued. And then the Judge will have to consider whether the evidence takes him past the “beyond reasonable doubt” threshold to enter a conviction.

Prosecutions under the Harmful Digital Communications Act in the main have resulted in pleas of guilty. But each case must be looked at in the context of its own facts and circumstances. It may be morally wrong to post intimate images on a Facebook page. But there are a number of other elements that must be proven before that amounts to a criminal offence. One of those elements is that of actual harm – serious emotional distress as defined in the Act. If proof of that is lacking there is no offence. If the target of the communication dismisses the posting as of no consequence, no harm has been done.

And that is what the Act is about. It is not about the nature of the content. It is about whether or not the posting has caused harm as defined by the Act.

Justice Downs’ decision helps us in how the evaluation of harm should be approached.