On 25 November 2012, sections 111 and 112 of the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 came into force in England and Wales, introducing two new stalking offences under the existing Protection from Harassment Act 1997 (“the Act”). Stalking as an offence itself will carry a maximum six month prison sentence and stalking where there is fear of violence or serious alarm or distress is punishable by up to five years in prison and an unlimited fine.
The new offences are built around the pre-existing concept of harassment within the Act. Stalking itself is left undefined but the Act lists examples of behaviour that would amount to conduct of this kind including:
- contacting or attempting to contact by any means;
- publishing material or statement;
- monitoring email and internet;
- loitering in any place;
- interfering with property; and/or
- watching or spying on a person.
In our previous blog, Harassment: will a change in the law provide better protection for victims of stalking?, we concluded that the Act already provides criminal and civil measures to protect victims of stalking, and arguably, the above represents little more than a reiteration of the existing Act, whereby it is already an offence to pursue a course of conduct which causes alarm or distress to the victim (on at least two occasions).
Yet there is no doubt that a call for change in this area was justified. A parliamentary enquiry has revealed that around 120,000 victims are stalked each year, but less than half of these incidents are recorded by police as crimes. Of those accused, only a small percentage are convicted with an even smaller number receiving a custodial sentence.
Certainly from our experience, harassment cases are becoming more varied and particular attention should be paid to the increasing use of social media and associated cyberstalking. Such is the nature of these behaviours that victims are often unaware that they are a target until after the event and even less aware that such behaviour could constitute harassment. This would suggest that the number of people falling victim to stalking each year is in fact far greater that the above statistics would suggest.
Given the limited guidance with regard the (non-exhaustive) established concept of harassment, it may be that the inclusion of specific examples of conduct amounting to stalking, including monitoring email and internet, will assist the police in recognising stalking as an offence falling within this definition, and this may encourage them to pursue further convictions in this regard. Certainly, the fundamental issue appears to be that stalking is not taken seriously as opposed to a real weakness in the existing legislation.
Thus, whilst sceptics may argue that the introduction of new legislation in this area has done little more than provide the Government with a welcome PR boost, if the introduction of the new offences does provide greater clarity for the police, and the associated publicity assists in raising awareness, then this can only be a good thing. It remains to be seen whether further legislative guidance will be required.