On 25 November 2013, it will be a year since two new stalking offences came into force. This Thursday sees a Backbench Business Committee Debate in the House of Commons on the implementation of the new law. So has changing the law done enough to protect victims?
Stalking or harassment?
Those with long memories could have been forgiven for a sense of déjà vu when the new offences were introduced. The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 was introduced by the then Conservative government as a solution to the problem of stalking. However, crucially it used the broader term of “harassment” in framing two new criminal offences and a civil remedy.
Under the 1997 Act, “harassment” is not fully defined, but includes alarming the person or causing them distress. There are two main offences:
- pursuing a course of conduct amounting to harassment
- putting people in fear of violence
A 2000 Home Office evaluation of the 1997 Act found that it was actually rarely used for “classic” stalking cases, and was far more often used to deal with lower level harassment by neighbours and former partners.
The new specific offences of stalking were introduced following a successful campaign by Protection Against Stalking (PAS) and the National Association of Probation Officers (NAPO). The deaths of victims such as Rana Faruqui in 2003 and Clare Bernel in 2005 contributed to pressure for change; both were killed by former boyfriends who had stalked them. In Scotland, a specific stalking offence was introduced in December 2010. This included a list of the kinds of behaviour which constitute stalking.
In 2011, PAS published the results of a survey of victims revealing dissatisfaction with the response from the criminal justice system. In the same year NAPO published a study of 80 perpetrators which, they said, showed that significant stalking or harassment evidence was being missed by courts and sentencers. Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper called for stalking to be made a specific criminal offence in a speech in September 2011.
An unusual “Independent Parliamentary Inquiry” held evidence sessions and produced a report in February 2012. This recommended the specific stalking offences, alongside a raft of other changes including improved training for criminal justice professionals. Chairman Elfyn Llwyd said that many believed the “chief shortcoming” of the 1997 Act was the failure to name “stalking”, so that sinister behaviour was conflated with nuisance crime.
Consulting on the changes
Interestingly, the results of a 2011/12 Home Office consultation on stalking noted gaps in perception between criminal justice professionals and the public on a number of areas. Whilst most respondents thought the legislation was inadequate, police and Crown Prosecution Service respondents thought the problem was enforcement rather than the way the 1997 Act was framed.
It is certainly arguable that stalking behaviours should come within the broader offence of harassment in the 1997 Act. But would naming stalking in the legislation improve the response of the criminal justice system to victims?
Changing the law
In March 2012, the Prime Minister announced a new separate stalking offence. The new offences were added to the 1997 Act by means of Government amendments to the Protection of Freedoms Bill. The changes came into force on 25 November 2012.
The new offences are:
- Stalking (pursuing a course of conduct which amounts to harassment, and which also amounts to stalking)
- Stalking involving fear of violence, or serious alarm or distress
There is a non-exhaustive list in the legislation of the kinds of behaviour “associated with stalking”, including following or spying on a person. The Crown Prosecution Service and the Home Office have both issued guidance.
Keeping up the pressure
Certainly campaigners are keen to maintain pressure to ensure that the changes to the law result in changes in practice by the police and other criminal justice professionals. A new stalking advocacy service, Paladin, was set up in July 2013 by those who led the campaign for the change. Interested peers and MPs have also formed an All Party Parliamentary Group on Stalking and Harassment.
So has the change helped?
It’s rather early to tell. Official statistics on courts proceedings only cover the first month of the new offences being available; data for 2013 are not due to be published until May 2014.
The Government says it has delivered training and guidance for police officers and prosecutors about the new legislation. Its Action Plan to End Violence Against Women and Girls says the Government will “continue to raise awareness of stalking to improve professionals’ response”. However, Paladin argues that not enough criminal justice professionals, including police officers, have been trained yet, and that, based on police force responses to Freedom of Information requests, arrest rates are “low”. Doubtless these arguments will be rehearsed during Thursday’s debate.
Further information is available in Library Standard Note 6261, Stalking.
Author: Pat Strickland