Harassment and stalking can cause victims, their families and loved ones immense physical, psychological and emotional harm.
Well-publicised murders of celebrities and others less well known have involved stalking and other forms of persistent harassment. Offenders stalk or harass their victims online, by post or telephone, by direct personal contact or combination of these channels. Men and women are both victims and offenders and offenders often stay anonymous for long periods of time.
A recent Crime Survey for England and Wales suggests there may be around 120,000 victims a year. Over the same period police recorded 52,500 offences involving harassment. Conviction rates are low, 4% or less depending on which of the two preceding figures are correct.
What is stalking?
The Protection of Freedoms Act amended the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 by identifying stalking as a criminal offence. The amendments came into force in November 2012.
The 2012 Act adds two new offences to the 1997 Act. These are stalking and (in its more aggravated form) stalking which causes the victim to fear violence or suffer serious alarm or distress. To be guilty of the offence of stalking the offender must, on at least two occasions, indulge in conduct that causes the victim harassment, alarm or distress. The 2012 Act recognises stalking as harassment that may include persistent and repeated contact or attempts to contact a victim. It provides a list of examples;
- contacting, or attempting to contact, a person by any means
- publishing any statement or other material relating or purporting to relate to a person, or purporting to originate from a person
- monitoring the use by a person of the internet, email or any other form of electronic communication
- loitering in any place (whether public or private)
- interfering with a person property
- watching or spying on a person
These types of behaviour will not result in a harassment charge if conducted for a lawful purpose (e.g. by police or other agencies to prevent or detect crime) or that the course of conduct was reasonable in the particular circumstances.
In addition, the 2012 Act clarifies references to harassment causing fear in the 1997 Act. It uses the phrase ‘substantial adverse effect on the usual day-to-day activities’. Examples might include victims fitting more security devices, changing routes to work or arranging for others to pick up children from school to avoid the attentions of a stalker. As a result the victim has less freedom.
Stalking is punishable by a fine and/or up to 51 weeks imprisonment. The second aggravated and more serious offence (stalking causing fear of violence or serious alarm or distress) is punishable by up to five years imprisonment. The police may get a warrant from Magistrates to enter and search premises for evidence of either offence.
What can you do?
- Take action – the sooner you take action, via police arrest, charge, caution or warning or a solicitor’s letter the more likely they are to stop. Ignoring repeated harassment is very unlikely to offer an answer.
- Contact the police – contact the local police as soon as possible. Ask for the name of the officer in charge of the case and record the crime reference number if applicable.
- Do not respond – you should not agree to meet with a stalker or communicate with them. This may put you in a dangerous position and weaken any prosecution case against the stalker because you may be accused of co-operating with them. Try not to become upset or show any emotion. The stalker may aim for this reaction and so repeat the behaviour.
- Let friends, neighbours and colleagues know what is happening – they can keep a record of sightings and suspicious incidents besides supporting and protecting you.
- Record what is happening – keep a diary – time and dates and what they say during telephone calls, encounters with the stalker and their actions, any cars used including registration numbers. Record how this impacts on you and your feelings–this will be useful evidence to aid the police. If possible and safe – use a camera this will give evidence identifying the stalker, any locations and the frequency of incidents.
- Improve personal safety – carry a mobile phone with you and a personal attack alarm – it will help you be more comfortable when you go out. If you are in imminent danger, use the alarm and/or call 999. Consider improvements to your home security.
- Post – If you are wary of any post you receive, consider giving it to the police without opening it, or put gloves on to avoid blurring any fingerprints.
- Computers – save emails and other materials causing you harassment or fear, print out hard copies and keep originals. If you are being victimised, only open emails if you know the origin. Make sure your computer has proper security and is virus protected.
This is a brief resume of the changes brought by the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 and is not to offer legal advice. Seek legal advice or other professional help. Further advice is available from other charities and organisations including;