Policing Today - looks at new stalking laws

The Network for Surviving Stalking's Jennifer Perry talks about new legislation aimed at making it easier to prosecute those who harass women.

New era for victims of stalking

When Tracey Morgan was stalked over 20 years ago, there were no laws to protect her. Eventually, she was made safe when her stalker, Anthony Burstow was arrested and convicted of attempting to murder another woman he was also stalking. It was Tracey's case and her campaign that lead to the 1997 Protection from Harassment Act.

According to the British Crime Survey, there are 120,000 cases of stalking and harassment a year, but only 53,029 cases are recorded as crimes. Relatively few of those are prosecuted. When there is a successful prosecution, it is only on limited aspects of the behaviour and not the totality. This leads to sentencing being unduly lenient.

There was an outcry when a man recently received 140 hours community service for a nine-month campaign of harassment. They were prosecuted under section 4, the more serious offence of causing fear of violence - which can impose up to 5 years in prison.

The same week the sentence was passed, Matthew Woods was sentenced to three months in prison for making offensive comments about missing girl April Jones. Stuart Roger meanwhile received 100 hours of community service for shouting "no ifs, no buts, no public sector cuts" at David Cameron during a speech in Glasgow.

It is hard for stalking victims to reconcile how a short burst of offensive comments can lead to tougher sentencing than a campaign of harassment or stalking that lasts for months - and usually years.

On the 25th of November the new legislation on stalking comes into force. It was passed in May 2012 as part of the Protection of Freedoms bill. It addresses two shortcomings of the Protection from Harassment Act.

Firstly the legislation defines stalking for the first time:

'Stalking is a particular type of harassment and can include a pattern of persistent and repeated contact with, or attempts to contact, a particular victim'.

Secondly, it helps to define the psychological damage of stalking in more quantifiable terms. Section 4 of the 1997 Protection from Harassment act refers to causing fear, which was ambiguous, making it difficult to prove. The new legislation states: 'The phrase "substantial adverse effect on the usual day-to-day activities".'

It is hoped that the clarification on the offence of stalking will lead to more arrests and prosecution. When Scotland brought in their new stalking legislation 2010 they saw an immediate effect with more prosecutions going forward.

It isn't simply the new legislation that will change the UK legal system, however. It is the new training and awareness that also go along with it.

The Network for Surviving Stalking has recently launched a new version of the highly regarded 'Digital Stalking; a Guide to Technology Risks'. The guide, funded by social investor Nominet Trust will provide professionals, from police, community safety officers, domestic violence experts and charities, with up-to-date information on the technology being used against victims, how it works, the risks and step-by-step advice on how victims can deal with these issues.

For instance, ex-partners often know, or can guess their victim's passwords for their iPhone or Google account associated with a phone. Once in the account, stalkers can see the exact location of the phone, lock the device, delete contacts, download apps and see photos or text messages that were synced. The guide will provide specialist knowledge that isn't currently available for most professionals on how to avoid these problems.

The new digital stalking guidelines are important part of this awareness because abusers use technology against their victims. It is a specialist subject, so the police need to have this information provided for them. The police and CPS now have the tools.

Campaigners Tracey Morgan and many others have fought hard to get these changes. We hope it gives the police and the CPS confidence to pursue prosecutions.

The guide can be downloaded free of charge from www.digital-stalking.com

Is someone watching you on the web?

Crime and Justice Weekly: Jennifer looks at the new stalking laws