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:
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.
Harassment is unwanted behaviour from someone else that makes you feel distressed, humiliated or threatened. Examples of harassment include:
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:
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:
Although stalking isn’t legally defined, section 2A (3) of the PHA 1997 lists a number of behaviours associated with stalking, including:
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 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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
If the abuser breaks the injunction, you have two options:
If your abuser is found guilty of breaking the injunction they may be sent to prison for up to 5 years, fined, or both.
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.
If you are ever in immediate danger, call the police on 999 or press the SOS button on your personal safety device.
For more advice on harassment and stalking, you can contact: