Law: Picking up stalkers by the breaches

One year after new stalking laws comes a more effective solution for the undeterred.
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The Independent Culture
WHAT DO a Pamela Anderson lookalike, TV weatherman Bill Giles, and actress Kate Winslet have in common? Like the late Princess of Wales, they have all been victims of stalkers.

The first anniversary of the death of Diana almost coincides with that of the anti-stalking law which was introduced to deal with the pryings of intrusive journalism and other highly publicised stalking cases.

One year on, according to Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, the Act has provided only limited protection for women against stalkers. Only one in 10 complaints to police under the Act has been prosecuted, and one in 20 has resulted in a conviction.

But what is considered - at least in theory - a more effective remedy for victims of harassment is about to become available from 1 September. Under section3 (3) to (9) of the Act, any stalker who breaches an injunction under the Act will commit a criminal offence and be liable to a five-year prison sentence. This is the first time in English law that breach of an injunction will be a criminal offence.

Barrister Neil Addison, who specialises in such cases, says: "The weakness of the present law is that if someone breaches an injunction under the Act, the plaintiff would have to go back to court at their own expense and apply for an order that the defendant is in contempt of court. That could attract a prison sentence, but it is a complicated and expensive way to proceed.

"But, for example, a case in point is that of last week's so-called Pamela Anderson lookalike Perry Southall. If she applied for an injunction under the Act after 1 September, and the stalker/defendant then breached it by contacting her, then the police could arrest him for that breach, and he could be put in prison for up to five years."

Addison has written a book with solicitor-advocate Timothy Lawson-Cruttenden, Harassment Law and Practice - to be published in October.

He predicts that the new provisions could lead to an upsurge in the number of injunctions being applied for. "Once the changes come into force, it will be the only injunction where the police automatically have a power of arrest if there is a breach, so it is more than likely that more people will want to use it. In cases such as neighbour disputes, racial harassment and disputes between partners in same-sex relationships, the plaintiff will only have to prove, on the balance of probabilities that the offending behaviour is unreasonable and amounts to harassment and should be stopped by an injunction. And breach of that injunction will then automatically involve the police."

The Act covers a wide spectrum of behaviour, apart from the stalking cases which hit the headlines. It also covers harassing telephone calls - barrister Robert Abbots was convicted under the Act in June after bombarding a former woman friend with telephone calls at home and at work. It is also thought, by extension, to include harassing E-mails and bullying at work.

But there are more controversial areas where the Act has already been used, such as against animal rights demonstrators.

Another area of concern, Addison adds, is that the change will also allow harassment injunctions to be taken out against juveniles (under 18 years of age). He argues that "to make breaking an injunction under the Act a criminal offence is evading the issue. Instead of criminalising conduct which would be better dealt with in the civil courts, a better solution would be to tighten-up the weaknesses in enforcing civil injunctions in the civil system - that would prevent branding children as criminals."