Stalking and Harassment – Definitions, The Law & How To Get Help

Stalking

Harassment and stalking are often used as interchangeable terms. However, they relate to similar but different offences that can cause victims, their families and loved ones physical, psychological and emotional harm.

Offenders can stalk or harass their victims in a number of different ways, including:

  • a text, answer phone message, letter or email
  • a comment or threat in person or online (e.g. social media or online chat rooms)
  • standing outside someone’s house or driving past it
  • an act of violence
  • damage to someone else’s property
  • maliciously and falsely reporting someone to the police without any wrongdoing

According to recent findings from the 2019 Crime Survey for England and Wales, there were over 1.47 million victims of stalking alone in the past 12 months.

What Constitutes Harassment?

Harassment is unwanted behaviour from someone else that makes you feel distressed, humiliated or threatened. Examples of harassment include:

  • unwanted phone calls, texts, letters, emails or visits
  • abuse (verbal or online)
  • physical gestures or facial expressions
  • images and graffiti

What Is Classed As Stalking?

Suzy Lamplugh Trust defines stalking as

‘A pattern of fixated and obsessive behaviour which is repeated, persistent, intrusive and causes fear of violence or engenders alarm and distress in the victim’

Stalking behaviour can include:

  • making unwanted communication
  • consistently sending gifts (e.g. flowers)
  • damaging property
  • physical or sexual assault

Young girl being harassed

Harassment and Stalking Law

The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 (PHA) outlines harassment offences as ‘causing alarm or distress’ (section 2), and ‘putting people in fear of violence’ (section 4).

The behaviour must happen on more than one occasion by the same person or group to be considered harassment; however, it can be different types of behaviour on each occasion. For example, a single threatening comment on social media is not harassment. Two comments or one comment and a text message may be considered harassment.

The Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 created two new offences, effectively identifying stalking as a criminal offence:

  1. Section 2A: Stalking – harassment which involves a course of conduct that amounts to stalking
  2. Section 4A: Stalking which can be committed two ways, namely
    • Stalking involving fear of violence
    • Stalking involving serious alarm or distress

Although stalking isn’t legally defined, section 2A (3) of the PHA 1997 lists a number of behaviours associated with stalking, including:

  • following a person
  • contacting, or attempting to contact, a person by any means
  • monitoring a person’s use of the internet, email or any other form of electronic communication
  • loitering in any place (public or private)
  • interfering with any property in the possession of a person
  • watching or spying on a person

Furthermore, the new offence outlined in section 4A states that the defendant’s behaviour has a substantial adverse effect on the victim’s usual day-to-day activities. This may include:

  • the victim changing their route to work, work patterns or employment
  • the victim arranging for someone else to pick up children from school
  • the victim putting additional security measures in place at home
  • the victim changing the way they socialise or stopping altogether

The new offences focus on the cumulative effect of stalking on the victim instead of looking at specific incidents in isolation.

Ultimately, it’s up to the courts to decide if something is harassment or stalking under the Act. Using the same set of behaviours, the courts will consider whether a reasonable person would interpret them as harassment.

Online Harassment and Cyberstalking

The advancement of technology has certainly made everyday life easier, but it’s also opened up new opportunities for stalking and harassment.

Cyberstalkers are driven by the same intention as non-digital stalkers which is to threaten or embarrass their victims. The difference is that they rely on technology such as social media, instant messaging and emails to do this. Everything on the internet can be used by cyberstalkers to make unwanted contact with their victims.

There are different types of online stalking, including:

  • Catfishing
  • Virtually visiting victims via Google Maps Street View
  • Hijacking webcams
  • Looking at geotags to track a person’s location

Man using his computer for cyberstalking

It’s important to try and protect yourself against cyberstalkers by limiting the amount of information that’s readily accessible about you online. Essentially, you need to test your ‘googleability’ by running a simple search of yourself on the search engine.

In terms of social media, you should review your privacy settings and limit visibility of your account so that only your friends and followers can see your updates, personal information and photos.

What Can The Police Do About Harassment?

If you feel as if you’re being harassed or stalked, you can report it to the police or apply for an injunction through civil court. It is a criminal offence for someone to harass you or to put you in fear of violence.

To get in contact with the police, either visit your local police station, or call 101 – the non-emergency number – and make an appointment.

HARASSMENT WARNINGS

After listening to the description of your abuser’s behaviour, the police might decide not to take any further legal action. Alternatively, they might issue the abuser with an informal harassment warning. These are also known as harassment warning notices or police information notices (PINs).

This warning informs the accused abuser about the law in relation to harassment. If the police receive similar reports in the future, they might take further action against them. The abuser might be asked to sign the warning. This is not an admission of harassment; however, it confirms that they have received the warning and it can be used against them if harassing behaviour is reported to the police again.

INJUNCTIONS

If the abuser isn’t charged by the police, you can apply for an injunction through a County Court under the PHA 1997 or under the Family Law Act 1996 Part IV.

An injunction can forbid an abuser from doing certain things such as contacting you directly or indirectly, going to your home address, place of work or children’s school.

If you’re associated to your abuser, you might prefer to apply to the Family Court for a domestic violence injunction called a non-molestation order. There is no court fee for this application and legal aid is available.

You are associated to your abuser if you and your abuser:

  • are or were ever married, engaged or in a civil partnership
  • are or were living together (including as flatmates)
  • are relatives (whether by blood, marriage, civil partnership or cohabitation)
  • have a child together or have a parental responsibility for the same child
  • are or were in an intimate personal relationship of significant duration

Alternatively, you can apply for a harassment injunction against any person who has harassed or stalked you, or put you in fear of violence by deliberately causing you distress on two or more occasions.

The orders must be reasonable and relevant to the harassment you’ve experience. An injunction might include orders such as:

The defendant (i.e. abuser) is forbidden from coming with 200 metres of the home of the claimant.

What if my injunction is ignored or not followed by my abuser?

If the abuser breaks the injunction, you have two options:

  1. Report the breach to the police
  2. Make an application to return to the County Court where the injunction was made to enforce it

If your abuser is found guilty of breaking the injunction they may be sent to prison for up to 5 years, fined, or both.

RESTRAINING ORDERS

If the abuser is charged by the police and the case goes to the criminal courts, the court may issue a restraining order to protect you. A restraining order can be made even if the abuser is not found guilty.

Similar to an injunction, a restraining order prohibits your abuser from doing certain things; in addition, breaking a restraining order is a criminal offence. As a result of this, you cannot apply for one yourself.

Example of a restraining order

How Can You Protect Yourself Against Harassment?

  • Say no – tell the person once that their behaviour is inappropriate and that you don’t want any contact. Do not get into a dialogue with the abuser.
  • Record what’s happening – keep any texts, emails or online comments as well as notes, including time and dates, of the harassing behaviour. Record any encounters with your abuser, such as what they say on phone calls, their actions and any relevant vehicle registration numbers. It’s also useful to document how this impacts you and your feelings.
  • Contact the police – harassment and stalking is illegal, so if you feel threatened or uncomfortable, report it to the police.

  • Confide in people – tell family, friends, neighbours and colleagues that you’re being harassed. They can also keep records of sightings and suspicious incidents as well as improve your safety when they’re with you.
  • Improve personal safety – always make sure that your mobile phone has sufficient battery in case you need to call the police in an emergency. Alternatively, you can invest in a personal safety alarm which has a built-in SOS button.

If you are ever in immediate danger, call the police on 999 or press the SOS button on your personal safety device.

Useful Contacts

For more advice on harassment and stalking, you can contact: