Help victims of stalking before they are harmed, inquiry urges

  • @peachey_paul

A new anti-stalking law is needed to stop the criminal justice system failing victims whose cries for help are not taken seriously, giving their tormentors confidence to expand their campaigns of harassment, an independent inquiry reports today.

The six-month all-party inquiry found the majority of victims were unhappy with the way authorities handled their complaints and police and prosecutors were ill-equipped to cope.

The inquiry was told that half of stalking victims who had been targeted through technology and in person showed clinical symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Those levels were higher than survivors of road crashes and bomb attacks, according to the research conducted by Professor Carsten Maple, director of the National Centre for Cyberstalking Research.

Victims who gave evidence to the group said the system only reacted once the perpetrator had seriously harmed their targets. "By then it is too late and victims pay with their lives," the report said. The panel, headed by Elfyn Llwyd MP, called for an increase in jail sentences for the perpetrators, better treatment to address their behaviour while behind bars and new legislation for England and Wales that makes stalking a specific offence. Scotland introduced a new anti-stalking law in 2010.

The plan also calls for new powers for the police to tell potential partners of stalkers about their past harassment. The report said the laws on stalking and harassment were outdated and needed an overhaul. The inquiry heard from police officers, lawyers, probation staff, victims of stalking and the families of those who had been killed. They included Tracey Morgan, who was stalked for 10 years by Anthony Burstow, a man she knew from work.

There are an estimated 120,000 cases of stalking every year, but less than half are recorded as crimes, according to Laura Richards from the Protection against Stalking Group.

Prosecutors were ill-prepared to take any cases forward and had little knowledge of stalking, which often led to endless delays and light sentences, Ms Richards said. Figures showed that just one in 50 cases resulted in a jail term.

The report also found that stalkers had continued their campaign of harassment even when they had been jailed. In many cases, threats continued to be made using either smuggled mobile phones, through letters or using official phones on communal landings at prisons. The report comes just days after the Home Office finished a consultation on introducing a stalking law. The Home Office said: "We need to carefully consider all responses before we act to ensure we get this right."

System failed my Clare, says mother

Clare Bernal, 22, was stalked by a security guard at the Harvey Nichols store where they both worked after she ended their brief three-week relationship.

Michael Pech followed her in the street, pestered her with telephone calls and text messages and once stopped her from getting off a train after following her from work. Pech said he would kill her if she reported him. Her colleagues finally did and he was charged with harassment. A week before he was due in court in September 2005, he entered the store, fatally shot Clare four times and then killed himself.

Her family said the criminal justice system had failed to realise the threat that Pech posed. "The danger signs weren't picked up because they didn't know how serious stalking was," said her mother, Tricia Bernal, yesterday.

"It's an escalating crime, it doesn't go away and it needs dealing with. There needs to be a serious stalking law."

My confidence has gone after 9-year ordeal

A stalker was jailed for two years last month after repeatedly breaching court orders to stay away from Claire Waxman. Elliot Fogel made hundreds of late-night calls, broke into her car and looked her up 40,000 times on Google in a year. "Many of the breaches of the restraining orders were left to fall by the wayside. That had a huge impact – it almost gives a green light to what they do," said Ms Waxman. "It's been nearly nine years. I don't think I've slept soundly for that long. I was very confident – now my personality has changed beyond all recognition."