KENT police are attempting to set a legal precedent after charging a man for allegedly making lewd comments about children during a private online conversation.

Gavin Smith, from Swanscombe, has been charged with four counts of publishing an obscene article in relation to a private conversation he is accused of having with an online acquaintance.

The 39-year-old has been charged under the Obscene Publications Act 1959, and this is the first time it has been used to prosecute for an alleged private online conversation.

Under the Act, a person who publishes material "distributes, circulates, sells, lets on hire, gives, or lends it", and it is obscene if it tends to "deprave and corrupt" those who are exposed to it.

Legal experts commenting online say Kent police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) are “radical” to consider a private online chat to be a published article.

If Smith is found guilty it could open the doors for police across the country to charge suspected offenders for online conversations when there is insufficient evidence for more serious charges.

Simon Westrop, head of legal at Newsquest, which owns News Shopper, said: “The CPS is sending a strong message about how seriously they view this matter.

“Obscene telephone calls can be dealt with under the Communications Act 2003, but that only creates a minor, summary offence.

“The Obscene Publications Act 1959 also covers electronic conversations of this kind and makes much greater penalties available if the offence goes to the Crown Court.”

Smith, of Boleyn Way, is also charged with four counts of possessing indecent images and two counts of taking indecent photographs, and is due to appear at Dartford Magistrates’ Court on July 9.

A Kent police spokeswoman said it would be inappriopriate to reveal in-depth details of the case while it is ongoing.

One of the earliest and most famous charges under the Obscene Publications Act was against Penguin Books after the release of DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960.

The not guilty verdict at the end of the high-profile trial resulted in more freedom for publishing explicit material, and by the mid 1980s the novel was on the school syllabus.