Hate crime laws in England and Wales should be extended to ensure equal protections for all the existing "protected characteristics" and to include some new ones. The report issued on Wednesday proposed extending protection to women "for the first time" in history.
The Law Commission is an independent statutory body tasked with advising the government on legal reforms. It is set to hold public consultations on the issue following the publication of the report.
It concluded that the existing legislation in the field of hate crime is "spread across different statutes and [uses] multiple overlapping legal mechanisms," while failing to equally protect all the vulnerable categories of people. Under current laws, the list of protected characteristics includes race, religion, sexual orientation, disability and transgender identity.
Gender should be added to the list, the commission said, urging the government to consider some additional criteria such as "age." It also called on the government to create a unified legal protection mechanism for all existing and future characteristics to ensure that a hate crime against any of them would carry the same penalty.
Under the existing laws, a hate crime component is seen as an aggravating factor in a criminal case, and certain crimes such as assault, harassment or infliction of bodily harm carry longer sentences if proven to have been committed out of hatred for a particular "protected" group.
Maximum sentences for hate crimes, including stirring up hatred, can be up to seven years. Currently, "insulting" behavior is sufficient grounds to be prosecuted for racial hatred, but not in cases concerning religion or sexual orientation. For a criminal case to be opened for the latter, it "must be threatening (not merely abusive or insulting)," the commission pointed out.
If the amendments proposed by the commission are passed, any hate crime, including those based on contempt for a particular gender, such as misogyny, could carry the same penalty.
The report includes a quote from criminal law commissioner Penney Lewis, who said that the move is aimed at ensuring the protection of women in the first place.
"Hate crime has no place in our society and we have seen the terrible impact that it can have on victims," she said. "Our proposals will ensure all protected characteristics are treated in the same way, and that women enjoy hate crime protection for the first time."
Other suggestions include a call to change the legal definition of "incitement of hatred" to make it more focused on the "deliberate" nature of the offense. The change is supposedly aimed at protecting free speech.
"Homophobic" football chants, as well as throwing objects at players, should carry a penalty in addition to racist chants at stadiums which are already publishable by law, the report advises.
Also mentioned in the report are homeless people, sex workers and adherents of certain "non-religious philosophical beliefs (for example, humanists)" and subcultures such as punks or goths. The report says there have been "calls" for hate crime laws to cover "hostility" to these groups too.
The commission is now expected to receive feedback from the broader public on its suggestions, including evidence from hate crime victims, police and rights groups. The public consultations are scheduled to continue at least until Christmas, while the amendments could be passed into law at some point next year.
The proposals have already received backing from some legislators. Recognizing misogyny as a hate crime "will help us detect and prevent offences including sexual assault, rape and domestic abuse," said Stella Creasy, a Labour MP and an advocate of the hate crime legislation review. She called on any woman who has suffered any form of verbal or physical abuse "to come forward and be heard in this consultation."
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