Harassment: will a change in the law provide better protection for victims of stalking?

27 January 2012

Last week the Government launched a consultation with the aim of providing more effective protection to victims of stalking. This consultation is due to last until 5 February.

One of the key proposals is to include stalking as a new offence in the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 (the “Act”). It has been suggested that there is a gap in the law and that an explicit offence of stalking is necessary to give clear guidance to the professionals who deal with this.

I have to say that I absolutely disagree. Stalking is undoubtedly a very serious issue, not least with the advance of technology which allows perpetrators to appear anonymous. However, the existing legislation already provides criminal and civil measures to protect victims of stalking and I cannot accept that their position would be improved by the addition of a separate offence.

It is well known that harassment is not especially well defined in the Act. However, it is clear that it includes a course of conduct which causes alarm or distress to the victim and that in order to be a course of conduct it must happen on at least two occasions.

Compare this with the definition of stalking referred to in the consultation “two or more incidents (causing distress, fear or alarm) of obscene or threatening unwanted letters or phone calls, waiting or loitering around home or workplace, following or watching, or interfering with or damaging personal property by any person, including a partner of family member” and it is difficult to see how the Act falls short. Although the definition of stalking is more detailed, it very obviously falls with the offence of harassment in the Act.

It seems to me that the Government would be better placed spending their time and money providing training on the existing legislation to professionals who deal with harassment and raising public awareness of this and the steps that victims should take.

Advice for victims of stalking

  1. Keep a diary of any incident, no matter how small it may seem. Make a note of the date and time and who was present. It is very important to also make a note of how you felt at the time.
  2. Report the matter to the police and ask them to issue a warning notice. This will make a prosecution much more straightforward if the perpetrator continues.
  3. If you are not happy with the action taken by the police, consider applying for an immediate injunction to restrain the perpetrator from continued activity. Breach of this is a criminal offence which can result in up to 5 years imprisonment.
  4. Consider taking civil action to obtain damages for the distress and any financial loss suffered.
  5. Do not be put off if you do not know the identity of the perpetrator. The police can find this information or you can make an application to the court requiring websites such as Twitter to hand the details over.
  6. If derogatory material remains in the public domain make a request to the website host that this is removed immediately.
  7. Consider bringing an action for damages in relation to any defamatory material or breach of your privacy.
  8. If the incident has taken place at your workplace or educational establishments talk to your HR department or tutor as the establishment may be vicariously liable and are likely to take action.

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