Thousands of stalking victims will be spared long campaigns of harassment as a result of changes to the law due to come into force on Sunday, campaigners have said.
Amendments to the law governing harassment will define stalking as a specific offence for the first time – punishable with up to five years’ imprisonment. And experts hope that the new guidelines and training to be given to police as a result will see stalkers caught quicker – before they have time to do physical harm.
According to one MP who has campaigned for tougher laws, the changes will also result in more convictions as the rest of the UK follows the lead of Scotland, which introduced similar provisions more than two years ago.
“This will improve the lives of thousands of people each year and save dozens of lives. There are around 100,000 complaints about stalkers each year, of which very few are pursued – and only a handful of those get to court. We will see more convictions because of this,” said Elfyn Llwyd, the Plaid Cymru MP for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy.
Figures from the British Crime Survey suggest that fewer than half of the annual cases of stalking – only 53,000 – are recorded as crimes by police and only 2 per cent of the total cases, which the surveys identifies as 120,000, resulting in convictions.
Mr Llwyd said he believed stricter guidelines given to police on what constitutes stalking, and new powers to arrest stalkers, will make it easier for them to help victims. Two new offences will be created, one which carries the lower penalty of six months in jail. The Harassment Act will also incorporate online stalking when the amendments come into force tomorrow.
Mr Llwyd said: “Most stalking is done via electronic media and most goes unreported because people don’t feel they would be taken seriously. Now we know that, even a pattern of behaviour which causes fear – such as too many unwanted phone calls – could be considered and acted upon under this Act.”
Victims of stalking who spoke to The Independent agreed and spoke of their fear of being laughed at if they reported it. “I was afraid that, because I had spoken to him initially, people would think that I had invited the attention,” said one, who did not want to be named.
Others even refused to give any specific details about their cases because of the fear the experience of being stalked has instilled in them. Jennifer Perry, a campaigner and online stalking expert, said she believed the legal changes would encourage more people to come forward – and the police to act more decisively.
She said: “By having a clear definition of what stalking is, the police will have more confidence when arresting an alleged stalker; they will know exactly what powers they have and the exact definition of the offence.” Similar changes in Scotland recently resulted in 400 convictions in 2011.