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Campaigners call for tougher laws to protect Stalking Victims

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The definition of Stalking (Verb): “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 ay person, including a partner or family member.”

There are currently 53,000 cases of stalking reported to Police each year but only 2% of those reported cases lead to a criminal convinction.  There are now calls for tougher stalking laws; to fill the gaps of the current law and provide better protection to victims of such a common type of intimate violence.

The Current Law

Current legal protection to victims of stalking is primarily provided by the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. The Act makes “harassment” a criminal offence with a maximum custodial sentence of 6 months. It also provides for a more serious offence of causing fear of violence with a maximum prison sentence of 5 years, The Act is intended to criminalise behaviour that stops short of actual violence and enable intervention where little could be done before. The word ‘stalking’ is not specifically mentioned in the Act but it was designed to, and does, cover many forms of harassment including stalking and cyber stalking.

Criticisms of the Current Protection

Campaigners say that dealing with stalking under harassment laws is inadequate. At the moment obsessive stalkers are dealt with under the laws against harassment but that often means the criminal justice system fails to take the problem seriously. One criticism of the current law is that it doesn’t get used; many police officers and lawyers are ignorant to its existence and skeptical about the seriousness of stalking as a crime. The Act does not use the word ‘stalking’ and the Police do not always realise that the act can be used to tackle stalking and so fail to take the appropriate action. Another problem of the current law is the restricted police powers to search premises and seize property. In some cases, particularly those harassment cases that involve cyber stalking, having a power to search for and seize computers or other electronic equipment that may have been used to commit the offence would help to give a fuller picture of the stalker’s behaviour and make prosecution more likely.

Complete Overhaul of the Law

Following parliamentary inquiry, the government has pledged to introduce two new offences - stalking, and stalking where there is a fear of violence. Police will also be given new powers of entry to investigate stalking offences to ensure early intervention. The calls for reform comes after a series of cases involving stalkers who went in to kill; the latest being Clifford Mills, 49, who stalked his ex-girlfriend before stabbing her to death. There will be a specific offence of stalking which could attract sentences of up to five years in prison. There will be training on stalking issues for the police, advocacy services for victims and provisions dealing with cyber-stalking (one of the most complex areas) and treatment will be available to try to cure those perpetrators who can be cured.

Will the new law be a success story?

Stalking Victims have attacked new laws designed to protect them, saying that they fail to recognise that many women are left psychologically devastated by the crime. The new law will determine that if it cannot be shown that the victim experiences a “fear of violence”, a difficult claim to establish, any conviction will only result in a maximum custodial sentence of 6 months which could be viewed as insufficient time to address their offending and a lack of recognition of psychological trauma that the victim may have suffered over a number of years.

The above article is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues

If you need any help or advice on this issue please contact Peter Butterfield on 0845 5212999 or email butterfieldp@gepp.co.uk