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England and Wales

The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 was originally introduced to deal with the problem of stalking. However, it covers a much wider range of behaviour, including behaviour which alarms or distresses the victim.

The Act gives both criminal and civil remedies. There are two criminal offences:

  • pursuing a course of conduct amounting to harassment;
  • a more serious offence where the conduct puts the victim in fear of violence

Harassing a person includes alarming the person or causing the person distress.

A “course of conduct”, which can include speech, must normally involve conduct on at least two occasions. There are special provisions to cover harassment targeting two or more people to persuade (for example certain kinds of protest action against companies) and harassment of an individual carried out by two or more people.

In addition to the criminal offences, a civil court can impose civil injunctions in harassment cases as well as awarding damages to the victim for the harassment. Breach of such an injunction is a criminal offence.

New stalking offences

In 2012 the Coalition Government added two specific criminal offences of stalking to the 1997 Act following widespread concern that the Act was not dealing adequately with this problem. Further information on this is available in a Library Briefing Paper on Stalking.


The Crown Prosecution Service has published legal guidance on Stalking and Harassment.

The College of Policing website has current guidance for the police on its Stalking and Harassment page and is working on new Authorised Professional Practice on harassment and stalking.


Scotland is covered by separate sections in the 1997 Act.  Key differences are:

  • they don’t provide for a specific criminal offence of harassment (although the police could prosecute perpetrators using the common law offence of breach of the peace)
  • there are special rules for harassment amounting to domestic abuse, where conduct on just one occasion can count.

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland has very similar provisions to those sections of the Act which extend to England and Wales. These are set out in the Protection from Harassment (Northern Ireland) Order 1997.  Key differences are:

  • The Order doesn’t include the specific stalking offences
  • It doesn’t include the special provisions for harassment of two or more people, or for harassment of an individual by two or more people

A separate Library standard note, SN/HA/3207, Legal help: where to go and how to pay includes information about sources of legal advice.

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