Following amendments to the Protection of Freedom Bill, the promised legislation to make stalking a specific criminal offence is close to becoming a reality. Amendments passed on 19 March will introduce new sections in the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 to create two separate offences of stalking.
One, under a new s2A will be a lower level offence of stalking causing fear or alarm. The second, under s4A, is a more serious offence of stalking causing either a fear of violence or serious alarm or distress which has a substantial adverse effect on someone’s daily activities.
The offence under s2A will be triable only in the Magistrates Court while the s4A offence will be triable either way but is expected to be sent to the Crown Court in the majority of cases.
The amendments are warmly welcomed by Protection Against Stalking as an important step in the battle against stalking. Their expert knowledge is not lightly ignored and it is impossible to overstate the importance of combatting the pernicious evil of stalking and protecting targets from the devastating damage it can cause.
All the same, I continue to harbour serious doubts that creating a new offence (let alone two) is really the answer. Indeed, the definition of stalking discloses just how superfluous the offence is. The proposed s2A(2) provides that conduct amounts to stalking if, among other things, it amounts to harassment. As harassment is already an offence under s2, it is difficult to see what s2A achieves besides confusing things.
The strength of the new offences is also undermined by the fact that under the existing amendment there is no provision for a linked amendment of s5. This presently empowers the criminal court to impose restraining orders on offenders and these may be in very broad terms to prevent the target from further harassment.
Breach of the order is itself an offence and may be much easier to prove than a fresh harassment charge. However that power will not exist in the case of offences under ss2A and 4A unless s5 is amended to say so. This would be an odd and unjustified anomaly so hopefully this will be spotted.
All that said, it seems to me the real issue is not truly about the available offences but about how complaints are investigated and prosecuted and how offenders are dealt with. As Laura Richards, co-founder of PAS says, “We need to now develop the training packages and train criminal justice staff adequately. This is now critical to ensure early identification, intervention and prevention.”
In the same LexisNexis news article (LNB News 04/04/2012 65 but only available to subscribers) Ms Richards adds “This is just the start and we still need to continue to raise awareness of stalking” and it is pleasing to report that the excellent work PAS does to that end continues on 18 April with National Stalking Awareness Day.