This week, there have been calls for new laws against online abuse.

Theresa May welcomed recommendations to make intimidation of Parliamentary candidates illegal.

Meanwhile, the former model and author Katie Price gave evidence to a committee of MPs, pledging to “fight as much as I can to get online abuse a criminal offence”.

But aren’t there already laws against abuse? And what could new laws change?

Existing laws

At the moment, legislation covers almost all aspects of online abuse. There are laws against everything from sending grossly offensive messages online, to threats and harassment.

The Communications Act 2003 is used for many of the prosecutions over online abuse. It rules against sending “a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character.”

It’s also makes it illegal to “persistently” use social media “for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another”.

There are lots more laws on top of this, such as the Malicious Communications Act, which makes it an offence to send messages with the intent to cause “cause distress or anxiety”. The Protection from Harassment Act, the Racial and Religious Hatred Act and the Terrorism Act are among the others.

FactCheck spoke to barrister Chris Bryden, an expert in harassment and cyberstalking who is part of the National Centre for Cyberstalking Research.

“There is no need for anything new,” he told us. “If you’ve got these sort of nasty threats … that already crosses the threshold that the Communications Act provides. Whereas if what you’re trying to do is stop people from saying ‘boo, you’re a nasty Brexiteer’, then you’re trespassing on freedom of expression probably too far.”

He added: “There will always be a potential defence of freedom of expression.”

However, while existing laws do already cover a wide range of online abuse, there is still a debate about how abuse can be tackled better.

Some experts believe the answer lies in better policing, resources and cooperation from social media companies; others believe the current laws are too fragmented. For instance, the chief constable of Essex Police, Stephen Kavanagh, has argued that “the law needs to be pulled together and the powers consolidated into a single place”.

And the Law Commissioner, Professor David Ormerod QC, has said we “need to make sure that the law is robust and flexible enough”.

And, at the other end of the spectrum, some believe that existing laws already infringe on free speech too much.

Intimidation of MPs

The recommendations for new laws that Theresa May endorsed came from a recent independent report for the government.

This suggested “a new offence in electoral law of intimidating Parliamentary candidates and party campaigners”.

However, the human rights barrister Adam Wagner has pointed out that the report itself admits new criminal laws are not necessary.

“We have seen no evidence that the current criminal law is insufficient,” the report says. “New offences specific to social media are unnecessary and could be rendered outdated quickly.”

Chief Constable Mike Barton of the National Police Chiefs Council told the committee behind the report: “Broadly, the law is there, and, broadly, law enforcement and policing are content with the law.

“There is a view that, with the advent of the internet, some of our more ancient laws are probably not applicable, but we do not find that.”

So what’s the point in a new law?

The report explains: “No behaviour which is currently legal should be made illegal. We believe that any new electoral offence that is introduced should not have any wider scope than the existing criminal law in respect of intimidatory behaviour.”

But the report says a distinct electoral offence would “highlight the seriousness” of the issue, result in more appropriate sanctions and “serve as an effective deterrent”.

Whether this makes sense – or is reasonable – is a matter of opinion. However, some experts are concerned such a law could infringe on free speech.

Chris Bryden gave us his personal opinion: “Why do you need an additional layer of protection?” he said. “Either something is intimidating or harassing to all types of people, or it’s not.”

“There needs to be a basic level of protection, of course. But that’s already there. It’s about enforcing what we’ve already got and making sure it’s possible to have the tools to get that prosecution.”