Mackay seeks way to halt stalkers

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The Independent Online
Lord Mackay, the Lord Chancellor, is discussing a new law against stalking with ministerial colleagues - in response to criticism of the law for failing to protect women whose lives are made a misery by men who pursue them obsessively.

Lord Mackay is believed to have floated the idea of extending "non-molestation orders" to cover cases of stalking. This would would allow victims to obtain orders against unwanted attention that a court is satisfied they find intimidating.

At the moment there is no law against watching and following people, or sending them unwanted letters, flowers or gifts. Stalkers can only be prosecuted for breaches of the peace, or threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour - in which case it must be proved that they acted with intent to cause harassment and alarm.

The maximum penalty for intentional harassment is six months jail and a pounds 5,000 fine, but police say they are handicapped by the difficulties of proving intent.

The Family Law Bill, currently going through Parliament, provides for "non- molestation orders" against people connected by family or domestic relationship. A source close to Lord Mackay said: "This could be a way of dealing with stalking more generally."

The orders can specify the type of molestation in question. They are a civil rather than a criminal remedy, but they could give the police the power of arrest in cases where they are breached.

Minister have already signalled their willingness to legislate against stalking and the Home Office is examining the options, including looking at laws in Australia, Canada and the US, where stalking is a crime. A man who stalked the pop star Madonna was recently jailed in California.

Home Office sources say that Lord Mackay's plans may not go far enough for Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, who may prefer to make stalking a crime.

But Labour claims that the Government voted down an opposition move to make stalking an offence in 1994, and failed to provide parliamentary time for a private member's Bill brought in earlier this month by Janet Anderson, Labour MP for Rossendale and Darwen.

She told the Commons: "British women who have been stalked are frustrated by the inadequacy of British law. And while the targets of obsession go on suffering, police officers are frustrated and angry with the absence of a specific offence of stalking."

She said there were too many cases where women's lives had been "devastated by the actions of obsessive former partners, or sometimes complete strangers". Stalking did not just affect members of the royal family and celebrities, she said.

The Association of Chief Police Officers recently launched a survey of stalking after concluding that the law is inadequate. It drew attention to a case when a magistrate complained he was unable to convict a defendant who had stalked a 24-year-old woman for more than two years because no law had been broken.

There will be no legislation in the current parliamentary session but it is still possible that a measure could be brought forward before a general election next spring.