What is stalking?
The law provides no distinct definition of stalking, however, various patterns of behaviour amount to stalking for the purposes of the criminal law. For instance, someone may be following you continually, bombarding you with text messages, or calling your phone and leaving abusive messages. Sending ‘poison-pen’ abusive letters can also fall within the category of stalking. Cyber-stalking is included within the patterns of behaviour that amount to stalking.
Stalking has become a specific offence only in the last few years, reflecting the reality that victims of stalking needed increased legal protection. Stalking causes significant emotional and mental distress and it is important that action is taken to bring it to an end as soon as possible.
What should I do if I’m being stalked?
If you are being stalked, you should contact your local police force and explain to them exactly what is happening to you. Tell them you fear for your personal safety. You may be asked(and it’s certainly advisable) to keep a diary of events, calls, and so on, so that you have evidence to show the police what is happening.
Inform as many friends, family and neighbours – they can help and support you. It is also a good idea to check your home security and implement additional measures if necessary, such as a webcam or CCTV. Avoid being alone if you can and try to alter your pattern of travel.
How does the law protect me?
The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 provides you with legal protection, and sets out three ‘stalking’ offences, namely:
- Stalking (section 2A(1))
- Stalking involving fear of violence (s4A(1)(b)(i), and
- Stalking involving serious alarm or distress (s4A(b)(ii))
The offence of stalking requires a course of conduct which is in breach of section 1(1) of the 1997 Act (ie. a course of conduct which amounts to harassment) and this course of conduct amounts to stalking. Such stalking behaviour may include behaviour such as:
- following a person
- 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 any property in the possession of a person
- watching or spying on a person
Stalking is a summary offence and carries a maximum of six months’ imprisonment and /or a level 5 fine.
Stalking involving fear of violence
This offence requires a course of conduct which causes you to fear that violence will be used against you; and which the defendant knows or ought to know would cause you to fear that violence will be used against you. The test is whether a reasonable person with the same information would think that the course of conduct would cause them to fear on that occasion.
This offence is more serious and carries a maximum of five years’ imprisonment and/or a fine on indictment.
Stalking involving serious alarm or distress
This is similar to the above – but requires that you are caused to fear, on at least two occasions, that violence will be used against you; or causes you serious alarm or distress which has a substantial adverse effect on your usual day-to-day activities. Again, the test is whether a reasonable person in possession of the same information would think it so.
This offence recognises the emotional and psychological harm that stalking can cause – even where an explicit fear of violence is not created by each stalking incident.
What amounts to ‘substantial adverse effect’ will be a matter for the court to decide, although government guidance suggests that evidence of a substantial adverse effect may include the following:
- the victim changing their routes to work, work patterns, or employment
- the victim arranging for friends or family to pick up children from school (to avoid contact with the stalker
- the victim putting in place additional security measures in their home
- the victim moving home
- physical or mental ill-health
- the deterioration in the victim’s performance at work due to stress
- the victim stopping /or changing the way they socialise
The offence of stalking which involves fear of violence or serious alarm or distress also carries a maximum of five years’ imprisonment and/or a fine on indictment.
What if stalking cannot be proved?
If there is insufficient evidence to prove a specific stalking offence, there are alternative remedies (both civil and criminal) under the 1997 Act for harassment, which falls short of stalking. If the police are involved and there is enough evidence, they will most likely seek a criminal conviction for harassment.
The 1997 Act makes it unlawful to pursue a course of conduct which amounts to harassment of another, and which the defendant knows or ought to know amounts to harassment. The Act states that a person ought to know that a course of conduct amounts to harassment if a reasonable person in possession of the same information would think that it amounted to harassment.
The types of conduct indicated above in relation to stalking will also be sufficient for the offence of harassment. On conviction of harassment, a prison sentence of up to six months can be imposed, and/or a level 5 fine. In the case of racially or religiously aggravated harassment, the punishment is harsher.
Are there any other remedies available in relation to harassment or stalking?
There are potential remedies available under the Family Law Act 1996 and the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 in cases involving spouses or partners/cohabitees. A civil remedy in the form of an anti-social behavioural order may be available in some cases under the Antisocial Behaviour Act 2003.
Stalking protection orders
There are plans to introduce stalking protection orders in the near future, providing speedier protection for the victim. A breach of such an order would carry a prison sentence of up to five years. Under the plans, the police will be able to apply to the courts for an order before a stalking suspect has been convicted or even arrested.