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Jamiroquai frontman Jay Kay felt “genuine fear for his safety” after being targeted by an infatuated fan, Ilona Angel, who subjected him to “a prolonged period of harassment”. Earlier this week a court found Angel guilty of harassment and she was given a restraining order and ordered to pay £1,045 in costs.
Angel is said to have repeatedly turned up at the singer’s home and ignored all requests to leave. Mr Kay is said to have suffered panic attacks and depression as a consequence of Angel’s conduct.
The Protection From Harassment Act 1997 (“the Act”) makes it a criminal and civil offence to pursue a course of conduct which causes alarm and distress, which includes the publication of words provided there have been at least two communications. Convicted offenders can be imprisoned for up to 6 months and fined, although this can be increased to up to 5 years and an unlimited fine if harassment causes the victim to fear violence. The victim can also bring a civil claim for damages and an injunction against the abuser.
In 2012, the scope of the Act was also extended to include two new stalking offences. Stalking as an offence itself carries a maximum six month prison sentence and stalking where there is fear of violence or serious alarm or distress is punishable by up to five years in prison and an unlimited fine. Stalking itself is left undefined but the Act lists examples of behaviour that would amount to conduct of this kind including:
The Act deals with harassment in any form, be it the royal warning to paparazzi over the alleged harassment of Prince George, cyber bullying or falling victim to a stalker but whatever form the harassment takes it can be extremely distressing. Users with the financial means to litigate can, like Mr Kay, bring a civil claim for damages and an injunction against the abuser but this is often not the only form of recourse. For example, the Malicious Communications Act 1988 makes it a criminal offence to send an electronic communication in any form that is indecent or grossly offensive, or which conveys a threat, or which is false, provided there is an intent to cause distress or anxiety to the recipient. Similarly, the Communications Act 2003 makes it a criminal offence to send messages by means of a public electronic communications network such as Twitter which are grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character. A criminal complaint might also be appropriate or, in some instances, simply instructing a solicitor to open a chain of communication with the abuser and seek to reach a legally binding agreement that the harassment cease without the need to go through the courts. In the public eye or not we recommend seeking professional advice to ascertain how best to deal with the situation.
Harassment is becoming more frequently used as a civil and criminal remedy by individuals and is now regularly used as an easier alternative to a claim in privacy or defamation. This is because, whilst a course of conduct may include libellous communications (including tweets and the use of other social media), unlike a defamation claim, under the Act there is no defence if the words published (or intended to be published) are true provided the conduct amounts to harassment. Moreover, in certain circumstances by framing a claim in terms of harassment, the victim can obtain a pre-publication libel injunction (in a defamation claim the court will not impose prior restraint unless it is clear no defence to the action will succeed at trial). Similarly, whilst it is now notoriously difficult to obtain a privacy injunction, providing the victim is able to show that the publication of private information is part of a continuous course of conduct which causes alarm and distress, there is no requirement to demonstrate that they have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the information they are seeking to protect.
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