Law in urgent need of reform

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The Independent Online
If confirmation were needed, the acquittal on Tuesday of Dennis Chalmers after a four-year campaign of harassment and pestering provides ample justification that a new law on stalking is urgently required

Margaret Bent, his 30-year-old victim, said she would have to quit her job and move house to escape after Mr Chalmers was cleared of grievous bodily harm and affray. The outcome stands in contrast to three earlier cases where the Crown Prosecution Service secured convictions of stalkers under the more serious charges contained in the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act.

Janet Anderson, the shadow minister whose own anti-stalking Bill was blocked by the Government earlier this year, yesterday emphasised a key drawback of the current law - the need to prove the stalker intended to cause the harm.

In fact, the Chalmers case raised a different though equally crucial issue - the degree of harm caused. The case hinged, Judge Quentin Campbell told the jury at Inner London Crown Court on whether that harm was really serious. "You may think she suffered annoyance, panic and emotional distress ... that alone would not be sufficient to find these charges proven. You have to go a step further and ask yourselves has Miss Bent suffered psychiatric damage and is that damage really serious?"

Although Ms Bent's supporters were unhappy with the judge's direction, the summing up represented the current state of the law. The earlier convictions for actual or grievous bodily harm have only been secured because the extent of psychological harm inflicted on the victims was so severe as to equate with physical assault.

The logic is that the more a victim resists, the less likely she is to see her tormentor brought to justice. But the drafters of the Government's consultation paper on reform appear to be moving, if belatedly, in the right direction. The earlier cases, they say, "cannot be used as a general precedent for dealing with cases of stalking. Victims should not have to suffer to such an extent in order for the law to provide an effective remedy - it is important to be able to take action before the behaviour of the stalker causes such severe harm to their victims."

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