Stalking, harassment and domestic abuse

What is stalking?

There is no strict legal definition of ‘stalking’ but Section 2A (3) of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 sets out examples of ACTS or OMISSIONS which, in particular circumstances, are ones associated with stalking.

The effect of such behaviour is to curtail a victim’s freedom, leaving them feeling that they constantly have to be careful. In many cases, the behaviour might appear innocent (if it were to be taken in isolation), but when carried out repeatedly so as to amount to a ‘course of conduct’, it may then cause significant alarm, harassment or distress to the victim.

Prosecutors have been given examples of the type of behaviours associated with stalking. The list is not an exhaustive list but gives an indication of the types of behaviour that may occur in a stalking offence. These are:

  • following a person
  • contacting or attempting to contact a person by any means
  • publishing any statement or other material (i) relating or purporting to relate to a person, or (ii) purporting to originate from a person
  • monitoring the use by a person of the internet, email or any other form of electronic communication
  • loitering in any place (whether public or private)
  • interfering with any property in the possession of a person
  • watching or spying on a person

Stalking involving fear of violence or serious alarm or distress

A course of conduct that causes the victim to fear, on at least two occasions, that violence will be used against them.  It causes ‘serious alarm or distress’ which has a ‘substantial adverse effect on the day-to-day activities of the victim’.

A person ought to know that their course of conduct will cause another person to fear that violence will be used against them if a reasonable person in possession of the same information would think the course of conduct would cause such fear.

These definitions are designed to recognize the serious impact that stalking may have on victims, even where an explicit fear of violence is not created by each incident of stalking behaviour.  The phrase ‘substantial adverse effect on the usual day-to-day activities’ is not defined in the Act but the Home Office considers that evidence of a substantial adverse effect when caused by the stalker may include:

  • the victim changing their routes to work, work patterns, or employment
  • the victim arranging for friends or family to pick up children from school (to avoid contact with the stalker)
  • the victim putting in place additional security measures in their home
  • the victim moving home
  • physical or mental ill-health
  • the victim’s deterioration in performance at work due to stress
  • the victim stopping/or changing the way they socialise.

What is harassment?

Harassment covers ‘causing alarm or distress’ and the more serious offence of ‘putting people in fear of violence’ offences under Section 4 of the Protection from Harassment Act.

Harassment is not specifically defined in the Act but it can include repeated attempts to impose unwanted communications and contact upon a victim in a manner that could be expected to cause distress or fear in any reasonable person.

A prosecution under Section 2 or 4 requires proof of harassment. In addition, there must be evidence to prove the conduct was targeted at an individual, was calculated to alarm or cause him/her distress and was oppressive and unreasonable.

Closely connected groups may also be subjected to ‘collective’ harassment. The primary intention of this type of harassment is not generally directed at an individual but rather at members of a group. This could include; members of the same family, residents of a particular neighbourhood, groups of a specific identity including ethnicity or sexuality, for example, the racial harassment of the users of a specific ethnic community centre, harassment of a group of disabled people, harassment of gay clubs, or harassment of those engaged in a specific trade or profession.

Harassment of an individual can also occur when a person is harassing others connected with the individual, knowing that this behaviour will affect their victim as well as the other people that the person appears to be targeting their actions towards. This is known as ‘stalking by proxy’. Family members, friends and employees of the victim may be subjected to this

What is domestic abuse?

Domestic violence and/or abuse is a general term describing a range of controlling and coercive behaviours.  Men, women and children can be victims of domestic abuse.

The Government defined domestic violence and abuse in March 2013 as:

‘Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members, regardless of gender or sexuality.’  This can include, but is not limited to, the following types of abuse:

  1. Psychological
  2. Physical
  3. Sexual
  4. Financial
  5. Emotional

Controlling behaviour is a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependant by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour.

Coercive behaviour is an act or a pattern of acts of assaults, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.

Family members are defined as mother, father, son, daughter, brother, sister and grandparents whether directly related, in-laws or step-family. However, this is not an exhaustive list and may also be extended to uncles, aunts and cousins etc.

This definition, which is not a legal definition, includes so called ‘honour’ based violence, female genital mutilation (FGM) and forced marriage and is clear that victims are not confined to one gender or ethnic group.

The Crown Prosecution Service recognises that most incidents of domestic abuse will take place through person to person contact but that increasingly some incidents will take place via telephone/mobile calls, through internet and communications technologies, such as mobile texts, emails, social networking sites and other web-enabled methods. Examples of such abuse include; controlling the use of a complainant’s phone, harassment through text, mobile, email, social networking sites etc., posting of inappropriate material such as sexually explicit or nude images or defamatory or insulting comments, or stalking a victim through the use of GPS technology on a victim’s mobile device.

Prosecutors will need to consider all forms of online abuse which is unwanted, offensive or used to harm or threaten individuals.  This behaviour may occur between individuals during an ongoing relationship, and also when a relationship has ended.

This type of abuse is not restricted to allegations made by complainants against their partners, or ex-partners.  Online abuse can be equally applicable to individuals in family relationships.

Other examples of controlling or coercive behaviour may be:

  • intimidation(through threats to harm children; threats to have children taken into care through coercion/exploitation of family court proceedings, or otherwise; threatening abuse when the victim does not comply to conducting certain sexual acts; threatening abuse when the victim does not support/assist the defendant; threats of abuse if the victim does not terminate a pregnancy, as well as forcing a continued pregnancy; victims feeling too intimidated to continue pregnancies to full term; ‘outing’ a victim’s sexuality or sexual orientation, HIV status or information about other sexually transmitted infections, immigration status);
  • deprivation(for example, from money, or having their own bank account; entitlements such as the victim’s name on property deeds; not being allowed to attend school/college; being restricted from certain opportunities, such as learning to drive, or access to car use; from medical care); and/or,
  • isolation(for example, not being able to have own friends; stopped from seeing family; not being allowed to leave the house; controlling the victim’s use of the telephone to contact others; exploiting the victim’s lack of understanding of English; using the victim’s actual or perceived mental health status to restrict activities, or contact with others; using the victim’s physical impairments or disability to maintain control over them and restrict activities or freedom to leave the home when desired).

There are other kinds of serious forms of abuse you might be experiencing which can be dealt with by the police and where you are not having to prove a course of conduct. For example you may be subject to the kinds of things listed above but you may also have been raped (the law requires you to give consent to sexual intercourse otherwise it’s an offence. Being married does not change that) or assaulted. These types of one off events will be taken very seriously by the police. You should also think about going to see a solicitor who can help you be safe by going to court and getting an order to keep the person away from you.

Using our app in these circumstances – choosing threads

We recommend that you choose threads based on this guidance as well as knowing the kind of things that have been happening to you already. If you find something different or new starts to happen, you can always start a new thread then. You don’t have to predict what’s likely to happen but can adapt your recordings in the face of what happens. Remember though that, if this sounds too complicated, you can always record everything on one thread and just describe it well.

The app is particularly suited to situations where you have to show a course of conduct. Record as much and as often as you can no matter how insignificant something might seem. You should include repeats of events as the number and frequency of events will illustrate how the pressure builds on you (e.g. repeated phone calls – take a screenshot of your mobile if it shows calls received).

Keep in mind the impact rating each time as the court will be interested in the effect on your daily life and activities. As well as giving an impact rating, though, still describe how you are affected by any specific event. This helps to build a picture of the pressure you are put under too.

We recommend you don’t stop recording even after you have gone to ask for help from the police or a lawyer. Sometimes people who have gone to the police change their minds and retract their statements or reconcile with a partner despite serious events. Things don’t always go smoothly though and so keeping a record is helpful.