Stalking is a term used to describe a type of harassment. If you believe you are a victim of stalking, it is important to become familiar with the laws that are in place to protect you and the precautions you can take to protect yourself.
Harassment includes actions that cause alarm and distress. Stalking in particular is behaviour that is repeated and unwanted by the victim. It can include actions that, although when isolated may seem normal, become menacing and cause alarm and distress to the victims.
Stalking behaviour may include frequent unwanted contact, such as appearing at the victim’s house or workplace; following, watching or loitering near the victim; damaging property belonging to the victim; or sending letters or unwanted gifts.
How does the law protect victims of stalking?
Before taking any action against stalking, you should contact a solicitor for legal advice.
The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 (the Act) creates a ‘civil tort’ of harassment, as well as a criminal offence. Therefore, a civil case can be brought in the High Court or a County Court; or a defendant can be tried in a Magistrates’ Court (or sometimes the Crown Court) for the criminal offence.
Section 1(1) of the Act says that it is unlawful to ‘pursue a course of conduct which amounts to harassment of another and which the defendant knows, or ought to know, amounts to harassment of another’.
The Act defines harassment as including ‘alarming the person or causing the person distress’ and that a ‘course of conduct’ must involve conduct on at least two occasions. Section 4 of the Act says that it is an offence to put someone in fear of violence.
Punishments and remedies under the law
A civil court can grant an injunction (i.e. an order requiring the defendant to do, or not to do, particular acts; and/or damages, including damages for anxiety caused by the harassment and any financial loss).
If an injunction is breached, it can be punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment in the Crown Court, up to six months’ imprisonment in the Magistrates’ Court and/or a fine up to £5,000. Alternatively, the defendant can be punished in the civil court for ‘contempt of court’, for which two years’ imprisonment may be imposed.
The court can also impose a ‘restraining order’ on the defendant, which prohibits them from doing certain things, or going to certain areas, for a period of time.
How can you protect yourself?
If you believe you are being stalked, you need to take precautions to limit the risk posed to you. These may include the following:
- consider your home and workplace in terms of security measures;
- inform people around you, such as family, friends, colleagues and neighbours;
- gather evidence and document everything that happens, keep correspondence such as text messages and emails and record any phone calls;
- do not enter into any conversations with the stalker;
- try to vary your routine if you feel you are being followed;
- always carry a mobile phone;
- treat any threats as legitimate and contact the police;
- try not to travel alone.
If you feel like you are in imminent danger, always call 999 or find safety at a police station, a family member or friend’s residence (location unknown to the stalker), public places, domestic violence shelters or a local church.