Known as ‘extortion’ in the US and elsewhere, blackmail is an extremely serious criminal offence under English law. Anyone charged with blackmail can be tried only by a judge and jury in the Crown Court. The maximum sentence is 14 years’ imprisonment.
Section 21 of the Theft Act 1968 sets out a clear definition of blackmail. The ingredients of the offence are:
A demand with menaces is defined as “unwarranted” unless the person making it does so in the belief that they have reasonable grounds to make the demand and also that the use of the menaces is a “proper” means of reinforcing this demand.
Menaces are threats and conduct of such a nature or extent that the mind of an ordinary person of normal stability and courage might be influenced and made apprehensive, so as to accede unwillingly to the demand.
Menaces are not limited to threats of violence. They can include threats of any action detrimental to or unpleasant to the person addressed. A menace could, for example, include a threat to report a crime to the police. What would make this threat blackmail is that it is accompanied by a demand, most usually for money.
Case law has also held that if the act constituting the menaces is not believed by the person making the demand to be lawful, it cannot be believed to be “proper”.
It is sometimes the case that a blackmail victim is a particularly vulnerable person who is more susceptible than an ordinary person to the threat or demand made. Providing the accused was aware of the likely effect of his actions on the victim, this is not a defence against blackmail.
A blackmail demand may be made in writing, by speech or by conduct.
A ‘gain’ or a ‘loss’ extends only to money or other property.
A gain can include the demand of money which is lawfully owed. What would make such a demand blackmail would be an accompanying threat to do an action detrimental to or unpleasant to the person addressed, if the money was not paid.
The consensual taking of or filming of sexualised images is a common practice in today’s society. Sadly, what is also increasingly common, is a threat to forward those images to third parties, such as to family members, friends or employers or to post those images on social media – or, for celebrity victims, to pass them to the established media – unless money is paid in return.
This behaviour, which has become known as “sextortion”, also constitutes the criminal offence of blackmail. In the absence of a demand for money, other serious criminal offences may have been committed under the Communications Act 2003, Malicious Communications Act 1988, Protection from Harassment Act 1997 and the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015.
Hickman & Rose’s expert lawyers are able to help victims of “sextortion” or any other form of blackmail, in a variety of ways, including:
We have extensive experience of representing high net worth individuals or those in the public eye. In all cases, we act with the utmost discretion to achieve the best possible outcome.