Now that a Nova Scotia judge has struck down cyberbullying legislation, concerns are being raised about the impact of the decision on cyberbullying victims.
In his decision last Friday, Justice Glen McDougall said the law, inspired by the death of Rehtaeh Parsons, was too broadly written and violates Charter rights to freedom of expression and liberty.
But supporters of the legislation say the decision has left cyberbullying victims with nowhere to turn.
Nova Scotia’s CyberSCAN Unit, which was created to investigate cyberbullying, says it has 46 open cases which it must now stop investigating, effectively closing them without resolution.
“We don’t have any legislative authority to continue to do that,” says the unit’s director, Roger Merrick. “Those cases basically stop.”
The law was passed in May 2013 in response to public outrage over the death of Parsons a month earlier. Parsons was 17 when she taken off life-support after attempting suicide.
Her case attracted national attention when her family alleged she had been sexually assaulted in November 2011 at the age of 15 and then bullied after a digital photo of the alleged assault was passed around her school.
Under the act, cyberbullying is defined as "electronic communication ... that is intended or ought reasonably be expected to cause fear, intimidation, humiliation, distress or other damage or harm to another person's health, emotional well-being, self-esteem or reputation."
Cases that involve a criminal element will be transferred to police, but of the 820 cases the unit has investigated since its inception, only 31 have been referred to police.
“Not all the material, not all the cyberbullying, fit in with criminal law,” says Merrick.
Police say they can only take cases that involve criminal harassment or the sharing of intimate images.
“If a complainant was willing to cooperate with police and actually have the police conduct a criminal investigation if it met those components, then we would take them on,” says Halifax Regional Police Supt. Jim Perrin.
Over the past two years, 10 CyberScan cases have gone to court and orders have been issued preventing the perpetrators from communicating with or about the victims.
Merrick says, in some cases, the bullying began again immediately after the law was struck down.
“It’s going to be very difficult to enforce an order where we no longer have legislation,” he says.
Wayne MacKay, chair of the Cyberbullying Task Force, says he’s worried about the message the decision sends to both victims and perpetrators.
“That is one of my concerns, that there’s a message being sent to perpetrators that hey, this is OK again,” says MacKay. “I feel badly for these victims who now have no place to go.”
The CyberSCAN Unit is now in the process of contacting everyone it has worked with, and while it can’t continue investigating cyberbullying cases, it says it’s not shutting down.
Team members can still provide advice on how to get offensive material removed and accessing mental health help.
“We see every day, we see the material, we see the offensive material, we see the impact,” says Merrick.
He says his team will try to help people as best they can until a decision is made about whether new legislation will be created.
With files from CTV Atlantic's Kayla Hounsell and The Canadian Press