In November 2012 the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 (the Act) was amended to include two new specific offences of stalking; stalking (Section 2A) and stalking involving fear of violence or serious alarm or distress (Section 4A). Prior to the introduction of these offences stalking behaviour was prosecuted under existing harassment laws.
The introduction of specific stalking offences was the result of the Independent Parliamentary Stalking Law Reform Inquiry’s findings that existing harassment laws were not sufficient or effective in dealing with stalking behaviour and that too many perpetrators of stalking were not being prosecuted. The specific offences at S2A and S4A were designed to empower victims to come forward and send a clear signal that stalking is a serious criminal offence.
Section 2A of the Act prohibits a person from pursuing a course of conduct that amounts to stalking. Stalking is not defined but this section is designed to tackle persistent and repeated unwanted contact or attempted contact, including following a person, loitering, watching or spying on them. Significantly, the new legislation recognises the monitoring of a person’s internet and email use as behaviour associated with stalking. A person found guilty will be liable to a fine or up to 6 months in prison.
Section 4A of the Act prohibits a course of stalking conduct which (a) causes the victim to fear, on at least two occasions, that violence will be used against them or (b) causes serious alarm and distress which has a substantial adverse effect on the day-to-day activities of the victim. This recognises the serious impact that stalking has on victims – even where there is no explicit fear of violence – and can include forced changes in behaviour, such as the victim changing his/her route to work, changes to physical or mental health and reduced performance at work. A person found guilty under this section could be imprisoned for up to 5 years.
The amendments to the Act also give the police new powers to enter and search premises in connection with stalking offences, again emphasising the seriousness of stalking.
We wrote in the Spring that we anticipated that the new offences would be under careful scrutiny to see how they would be used and implemented. We were right. Paladin, the National Stalking Advocacy Service, has expressed its disappointment that a survey of all police forces in England and Wales showed that only 33 people were convicted in the first 6 months following the introduction of the new anti-stalking laws. This is despite there having been 320 arrests and 189 charges under the new legislation. Less than 20% of those convicted received prison sentences.
It is not clear to what extent these prosecutions involved an element of cyberstalking but we would be surprised if they did not feature some kind of online stalking activity; the legislation was certainly intended to be wide enough to cover cyberstalking.
Whilst these initial findings may seem disappointing we must remember that it is still very early days. The successful implementation of these laws will be dependent on a multi-agency approach with the police, the CPS and criminal justice system working together to improve training and awareness. The increasing militancy of groups like Womens’ Aid and the Twitter backlash by Classicist Mary Beard, journalist Caroline Criado-Perez and Labour MP Stella Creasy has very much brought cyberstalking to the forefront of public discussion and helped secured justice for victims.