Cases highlight danger of online abuse for people with learning disabilities

Two people with learning disabilities lack the ability to make decisions about the use of social media, a judge in a specialist court has concluded.

Mr Justice Cobb decided that a man in his 20s lacked the mental capacity to use the internet or social media.

He has also concluded that a woman in her 30s lacked the mental capacity to make decisions relating to her use of social media “for the purposes of developing or maintaining connections with others”.

The judge said online abuse of disabled people was an issue of increasing concern.

He published rulings on Thursday after analysing the two cases at separate hearings in the Court of Protection, whether issues relating to people who lack the mental capacity to make decisions are considered, earlier this year.

“Social media and online dating sites have increased the exposure of vulnerable disabled people to those who might exploit them,” said Mr Justice Cobb in his ruling on the man’s case

“Those with learning disabilities may find themselves unwittingly initiating social media or internet activity which turns out to be harmful or hurtful to themselves or others.”

He added: “This activity is far less likely to be calculated than impulsive – indeed, many may be unaware of the consequences of their actions, confused, naive, but perhaps surprisingly digitally savvy.”

Lawyer Caroline Hurst, who works for law firm Simpson Millar and represented the man, said Mr Justice Cobb had provided “clarity” on an “increasingly prominent issue”.

She added: “There should be consistency between local authorities with regards the criteria that must be met when determining whether an individual has the mental capacity to use the internet and social media safely.”

Social services staff working with the man and woman had raised safety concerns around their use of social media.

A social worker said the man had a “compulsion” to communicate online which seemed to override any concern he had for his safety.

The judge was told that the woman disclosed personal information to strangers via social media.

He approved an “internet access and safety” care plan drawn up by specialists working with the man.

The judge said that plan would allow the man limited supervised use of a computer and allow social services staff to regularly check his mobile.

He said the woman should undergo a “programme of work”.

Mr Justice Cobb, who is based in the Family Division of the High Court in London, had analysed the man’s case at a hearing in Newcastle upon Tyne and the woman’s case at a hearing in Leeds.

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