This is the first in a short series of blog posts on harassment and stalking. This post will look at what stalking and harassment mean in criminal law. The next posts will look at how we defend harassment charges and what you can do if you are the victim of an allegation of stalking.
The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 became law following a number of high profile cases in which the police struggled to respond because there was no obvious offence being committed despite the victims being highly distressed by the stalkers behaviour. In 1996, a private detective agency opened that offered to deal with the problem by stalking the stalker as a way of frightening him off. Eventually, the government responded by criminalising stalking behaviour. But what is stalking behaviour?
Although harassment and stalking are very closely linked they are separate offences.
In England, harassment is a course of conduct that amounts to harassment of another person and which the person pursuing the conduct ought to know amounts to harassment. Stalking is defined as a course of conduct that meets the definition of harassment and also amounts to stalking. That definition is deliberately vague because Parliament wanted to allow courts to decide in each case whether what was going on was harassment or not rather than Parliament deciding. Thus, the law allows for situations where public views on what amounts to harassment changes over time.
We can say two things for sure. First is that because harassment requires a “course of conduct”, it is something that must happen on two or more occasions. Secondly, Parliament has given us some examples of what would amount to stalking. They are things such as: following somebody, contacting them, publishing material about them or purporting to be from them, monitoring them on the internet, spying on them, and so on.
The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 creates four criminal offences.
First, there is harassment. A person convicted of harassment can be sentenced to six-months imprisonment and an unlimited fine.
Secondly, there is stalking. The maximum sentence for stalking is 51-weeks imprisonment and an unlimited fine. Although at the time of writing magistrates’ courts are limited to imposing just six months imprisonment for each offence.
The third offence is stalking where you cause the victim to fear violence or you cause them serious alarm or distress. For this offence the prosecutor must prove that you stalked another person and that on at least two occasions you caused them to fear violence would be used against them or you caused them serious alarm or distress such that it had a substantial impact on their daily lives. The maximum sentence for stalking involving fear of violence or distress is ten-years imprisonment and an unlimited fine.
The final offence is putting people in fear of violence. To be convicted, the prosecution must prove that on at least two occasions your conduct caused another person to fear that violence would be used against them and that you ought to have known that your conduct would cause that fear in the other person. As with stalking involving fear of violence or distress the maximum sentence is ten years imprisonment and an unlimited fine.
You may be wondering what the difference is between putting people in fear of violence and stalking that causes the victim to fear violence or distress. The answer is that the stalking version of the offence can be committed by merely causing serious alarm or distress, which is a much lesser impact that causing them to fear violence would be meted out to them.
On a final point, you may already know that a court can impose a restraining order on those convicted of harassment, but did you know that the court can still impose the restraining order if you are acquitted of the offence? We’ll be looking at restraining orders in the final part of our harassment series.
In the next blog in our harassment series we’ll look at defences to allegations of harassment and stalking.