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If you are worried about blackmail after reading this article and you would like to discuss your concerns in complete confidentiality please contact your nearest London office to arrange an appointment.
Blackmail is the crime of threatening to reveal substantially true information about a person to the public, a family member, or associates unless a demand made upon the victim is met.
This information is usually of an embarrassing, socially damaging, and/or incriminating nature. As the information is substantially true, the act of revealing the information may not be criminal in its own right nor amount to a civil law defamation; the crime is making demands in exchange for withholding it. English Law creates a much broader definition of blackmail, covering any unwarranted demands with menaces, whether involving revealing information or not.
Blackmail is similar to extortion. The difference is that extortion involves an underlying, independent criminal act, while blackmail does not.
Under section21(1) of the Theft Act 1968 of English law, a person commits the offence:
if, with a view to gain for himself or another or with intent to cause loss to another, he makes any unwarranted demand with menaces; and for this purpose a demand with menaces is unwarranted unless the person making it does so in the belief:
(a) that he has reasonable grounds for making the demand; and
(b) that the use of the menaces is a proper means of reinforcing the demand.
The Act uses the word “menaces”, which is considered wider in scope than “threat” and involves a warning of any consequences known to be considered unpleasant by the intended victim. This covers the spectrum from actual or threatened violence to the victim or others, through damage to property, to the disclosure of information.
Pretexts for blackmail have included the threat to reveal adultery or criminal acts. But whatever the nature of the menace, it must be direct. Any vague threat to cause “something bad” to happen to some other person, except when certain demands are met, are not applicable under the law.
Taking hostile action directly does not constitute blackmail, regardless of the legality of the action. For instance, telling a man’s wife that he has committed adultery is legal, even if the man would rather pay money than have his wife learn of his adultery. Blackmail consists of making demands in exchange for not taking the action.
Debt collectors have been accused of blackmail, but those pursuing legal debts are generally able to justify their threats of repossession because, even though it may be unpleasant to the victim, this is a legitimate use of civil law remedies. However, there are limits: many jurisdictions do not allow a “claim of right” defence to blackmail. In other words, one cannot use blackmail to collect even a valid debt.
By contrast, those chasing illegal (and thus unenforceable) debts who back up their demands with the threat of bodily injury cannot avail themselves of the same defence. There will also be liability even though the debts are legally owed if the menaces are of a criminal nature, for instance of an assault or more serious violence or criminal damage.
The maximum sentence under the terms of the Act is 14 years imprisonment (s.21 Theft Act 1968); reflects the severity of the offence, which can destroy a person’s reputation, personal life and livelihood.
Defendants convicted of a criminal offence can often be punished with a prison sentence.
Therefore, it is highly advisable and in your own interests that you receive legal advice from a solicitor who is an expert in criminal law if you have been charged with a criminal offence relating to blackmail – i.e. speak to a specialist criminal solicitor.
Specialist criminal solicitors are very experienced in successfully defending criminal prosecutions because criminal law is their sole activity. They are likely to represent you better than a solicitor who does not have that experience or expertise – i.e. a general practice solicitor whose day-to-day activities might include family law and housing law as well as some criminal law.
Arrange an appointment to discuss your concerns about blackmail with a specialist criminal solicitor at the earliest opportunity by contacting your nearest London office.