This week (24-28 April 2017) is National Stalking Awareness Week which aims to highlight the problems victims of stalkers encounter.
There have been a number of high profiles incidents involving stalkers of celebrities and other high profile individuals but the problem is not limited to that elite group. Anyone has the potential to be stalked and most victims will know their stalker with the most common stalkers being ex-partners of the victim. The Hollie Gazzard Trust has identified a number of traits which stalkers are likely to have which include: rejection, feelings of resentment, seeking intimacy, and predatory.
Stalking can have a huge impact on a victims’ lives. As well as potential physical assaults (and in worst case scenario’s murder) there could be long lasting psychological harm including depression, anxiety and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (‘PTSD’).
For victims of stalking there are two potential legal avenues which are potentially available, criminal prosecution or a civil injunction. The primary piece of legislation in respect of these is the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 (‘PHA’). This was amended by the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 which introduced a specific offence of stalking in addition to that of Harassment.
What is important is that there has been a ‘course of conduct’ as one-off incidents will not amount to stalking or harassment. Often, each individual incident or act when looked at in isolation could appear innocent or not serious enough to justify action being taken. As such, whether it’s the police and CPS pursuing a criminal prosecution or individual victims pursuing a civil injunction it is important that sufficient evidence is put before the court to evidence.
So what should victims do?
If you feel your immediate safety is at risk then you should call the police on 999, but to report non-urgent matters you can call 101.
The most useful thing a victim of harassment or stalking can do is in relation to gathering evidence is to keep a diary or log of incidents that occur, which includes dates, times and descriptions of what happened. This type of contemporaneous evidence will be very helpful to a court.
Equally, reporting incidents to police or other appropriate bodies which may be appropriate in the circumstances (i.e. GP, social services, schools, etc) will also be helpful as these organisations may keep contemporaneous records of incidents reported to them. If the behaviour involves sending communications, be it letters, texts, emails etc, then these should all be kept to they can be shown to the court.
If the Police and CPS are successful in prosecuting a stalker the court can impose either a custodial sentence of up to 51 weeks or a fine. However, police and CPS resources are limited and therefore victims may find that prosecutions are not always pursued, particularly as the burden of proof in criminal matters is ‘beyond all reasonable doubts’.
In civil proceedings, the burden of proof is slightly lower and based on ‘the balance or probabilities’, i.e. is it more than 50% likely that the defendant did was the claimant alleged. Under the PHA victims can pursue a civil claim against the stalker. The court can award damages for any financial losses suffered by the victim as well as for anxiety. In addition, a court can make an injunction preventing the stalker form continuing with the course of conduct complained of by the victim. If the stalker breached the terms of the injunction made by the civil court then they would be committing a criminal offence and could be imprisoned for up to 5 years and/or fined.
If you are concerned that you may be being stalked you should seek advice and start keeping a diary of incidents as soon as possible.