It is estimated that in the UK one in four women will suffer domestic abuse. Many men also suffer.
Recently the Government has widened the scope of offences coming within the ambit of the Protection from Harassment Act to include two new offences: stalking, and stalking which causes distress or fear of violence. The intention is to offer greater protection to victims of this appalling crime, and the offences were brought in alongside a package of funding and measures aimed at reducing domestic violence and combating the abhorrent practice of female genital mutilation.
Last year a parliamentary inquiry found that about 120,000 victims, mostly women, were stalked every year. Although it seems impossible to know whether that’s a fair guess or not, certainly all of us personally know people who have been subjected to this sort of behaviour. Disappointingly, despite the apparently huge numbers of victims, only 53,000 incidents were recorded as crimes by police in 2010 – and only around 2% of these reports led to an offender being jailed. Over two thirds of victims were unhappy with the way the criminal justice system handled their complaint. We hope that the new offences, combined with the new guidelines prepared by the CPS on dealing with stalking cases will see an improvement in the treatment of victims.
The new offences were brought in by the grand sounding Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 which inserted the new offences into the older Protection from Harassment Act. Two new offences were created by the legislation: (1) stalking and (2) stalking which causes the victim serious alarm or distress, or makes them fear on at least two occasions that violence will be used against them. As you would expect, the second offence carries the greater penalty. Stalking carries a maximum six month prison sentence. The more serious offence of stalking causing fear of violence or serious alarm or distress is punishable by up to five years in prison and an unlimited fine.
The legislation does not define stalking, leaving the police, prosecutors and judges to know it when they see it. In fact, although there are many of us (and certainly many victims) who feel it would be useful to have a definition so that it’s clear what boxes need to be ticked for the offence criteria to be met, the fact that there is no definition means that it’s not possible to circumvent or manipulate the system. There are some pointers, however: the new law refers to an intentional course of conduct which amounts to harassment of the victim, and then lists some possible examples of what might amount to stalking. These include:
- following someone;
- contacting them;
- publishing material about a person or purporting to be published by them;
- monitoring email and internet;
- loitering; and
- interfering with someone’s property.
For the course of conduct to amount to an offence, alongside the behaviour there has to be a mental element. The perpetrator has to know, or it must be reasonable to expect them to know, that their conduct amounts to stalking. In the case of the more serious offence, the perpetrator has to know or ought to know that their conduct will cause alarm and distress, or cause the victim to fear violence. If a “reasonable person” in the same circumstances would think that the course of conduct would be stalking or cause someone to be fearful, distressed or alarmed, that’s enough (the irony, of course, is that a reasonable person would be unlikely to stalk…).
It is good to see email and internet monitoring specifically mentioned; this shows an increasing tendency to take seriously the growing problem of cyber-stalking and internet bullying.
Many commentators said that new stalking legislation was unnecessary because such criminal behaviour was already within the ambit of the previous harassment legislation. The government was accused of conducting a pure PR exercise to show itself doing something positive for women for a change – indeed, the new offences came into force on the “International day of the elimination of violence against women”. Of course it’s essential to remember that women stalk too, and men can be victims: it’s not a gender-specific crime. In any event, we hope that greater clarity about and emphasis on stalking and harassment will see the police and CPS bring more prosecutions against those who devote their energies to bringing misery to others through stalking or other harassment, whether male or female.
Once again, England has lagged behind Scotland in this area. A stalking offence was introduced north of the border in December 2010. We welcome the new legislation, and wait with interest to see if it will lead to an increase in successful prosecutions brought. In the meantime, if you have any concerns or queries about the new laws, please give Gail, Sue, Adam or Simon a call on 01223 443333.