When the Prime Minister, David Cameron, used International Women’s Day to announce that stalking would become a specific offence; this area of criminal law once again came under the spotlight.
The current legislation had come under earlier scrutiny when an independent parliamentary enquiry had reported calling for a review of the legislation which was describe as ‘ not fit for purpose’.
The current law, the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, makes it an offence to pursue a course of conduct, which amounts to harassment of another and which the defendant knows or ought to have known amounted to harassment. A course of conduct anticipates that the behavior complained of must have happened on at least two occasions.
Section 4 of the act provides a specific and more serious offence by the harassment to put someone in fear of violence. The punishment under Section 4 is five years maximum on indictment.
In addition, a restraining order made under the legislation can protect the victim from further behavior carrying again a five-year maximum term for breach. Where the harassment is racially aggravated the maximum term of custody is increased to two years and seven years respectively.
We are told that the existing legislation is “not good enough or strong enough’. So what is proposed? The ‘new’ law, expected to come into force later this year, will make stalking (in itself) and stalking (where there is fear of violence) criminal offences. Stalking will be defined as behavior including following, contacting or attempting to contact by any means, loitering in public places, publishing material, monitoring email and internet and other such similar behavior. As indicated by our Prime Minster, the basic offence will be punished by a maximum custodial term of six months.
Where there is such fear of violence, the penalty will be a maximum custodial term of five years.
So is this the new legislation for those victims who, according government have “waited too long’, or merely a reiteration of existing legislation? Although it has been spun as the former, I suspect the later.
Although the existing regime does not specifically name ‘stalking’ as an offence, the Protection from Harassment Act can, and has been, used to prosecute a wide range of activities many of which one would consider by their nature to be stalking. The problem is it seems that anything other than new legislation does not attract headlines.
Already the proposals have been met with criticism; mainly on the basis that the law perpetuates the difficulties perceived by many as to the present failings of the Protection of Harassment Act. The problem faced is in proving that the victim has been put in fear of violence. Prosecutions have tended to be brought under section 2 rendering the maximum sentence one of 6 months imprisonment. It was hoped that one single offence of stalking would be created which would carry the sanctions that could be imposed by the Crown Court.
Whatever the criticisms, the fundamental issue remains; stalking is not taken seriously as problem. Until that is addressed whatever legislation is in force will not help the victims.
It is said that some 120,000 women are stalked each year and yet only around 53,000 incidents of stalking are recorded as crimes. Just a small percentage of those accused of stalking are convicted, with even fewer being jailed.
It is hard to believe the new Act will make a real difference. If offences aren’t being properly investigated or prosecuted, the nomenclature is irrelevant; victims will still be unprotected.
The charity ‘Protection Against Stalking’ conducted a survey reporting that 65% of people who contact the police and 75% of people who had contact with CPS in respect of stalking matters were not happy with the response. There are many who call for better training and a greater understanding of the plight of those who are stalked.
If the Prime Minister wishes to “make sure justice is done, protect the victims and show stalking is a crime’, then the authorities must make sure that reports are taken seriously, properly investigated and effectively prosecuted.
Stalking is becoming increasingly common in modern society. The severity of this issue needs to be addressed with effective legislation, which deals directly with this harrowing and distressing crime and not simply a rehash of the present law.