Stalker's victim 'will have to flee'

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A restaurant manageress who saw the man she accused of stalking her for four years walk free from court yesterday said that she would have to quit her job and flee her home to escape him.

Margaret Bent, 30, from Brixton, south London, wept when a jury found van driver Dennis Chambers, 37, of no fixed abode, not guilty of grievous bodily harm, and affray at Inner London Crown Court.

The court had heard that Mr Chambers plagued Miss Bent since 1992, following her home, hanging around her restaurant and phoning her up to 10 times a day. The jury was told he resorted to waiting outside her home with a machete and, on two occasions, barricaded her in her office.

But, despite the alleged "drip, drip, drip of incidents", Judge Quentin Campbell told the jury that the case hinged on whether Miss Bent had been "seriously or really seriously harmed" by her four-year ordeal. He said "annoyance" or "disruption to her life" was insufficient for a conviction.

The verdict was condemned by women's rights groups. Julie Bindel, one of the women behind an international conference on violent abuse and women's citizenship which will focus on harassment and stalking, said: "This case shows that we have a long way to go in our legal system in recognising the victims of constant harassment and threats on women by men.

"This will be seen as a setback for many women coming through this."

The trial was shortened after Mr Chambers, representing himself, gave no evidence and called no witnesses. Judge Campbell reminded the jury of Mr Chambers' taped interview with police - played in court - in which he claimed Miss Bent had "no need to panic".

In it, Mr Chambers said: "I've heard that she says I've been stalking her ... I make sure I leave there before she leaves there and there's no question of following her.

"If she sees me she doesn't have to panic, so she should just see me."

He admitted to police that he had registered his car in Miss Bent's name, ensuring she received a string of parking tickets and summonses and visits from the bailiffs threatening to seize her property if fines went unpaid.

He also accepted he kicked her office door but denied it amounted to affray. It was "a mere act of instinctive criminal damage".

The judge told the jury: "You have to ask yourself 'Has Miss Bent as a result suffered serious psychiatric damage as opposed to mere emotional distress?'

"If she has suffered some psychiatric damage you have to ask 'Is it serious psychiatric damage?' "

The jury's subsequent acquittal was greeted with shock and dismay by Ms Bent's mother and sister.

Comforted by friends after the case, Miss Bent said she would now have to move away from the area and leave her job of 11 years. "I am definitely scared. First thing tomorrow morning I am going to start looking to live elsewhere," she said. "I hope not to stay in London because he's out." She added that the law on stalking should be changed but said it seemed an impossibility. "I'm very angry, disappointed. There should be a law against it, because it's not right.

'Justice hasn't been done, not a bit," she added.

The Government has acknowledged the glaring inadequacy of existing laws - stalking is not a criminal offence - and issued a Home Office consultation paper outlining plans to tackle stalking with a mixture of new criminal and civil offences.

The measures, which could come into force by spring next year, include making it a criminal offence intentionally or unintentionally to cause people to fear for their safety, a criminal offence to cause harassment, alarm and distress, and making it possible for victims to obtain civil injunctions to stop molestations.