National Stalking Helpline and Suzy Lamplugh Trust Comment on Stalking Issues
Prior to the stalking law being introduced in November 2012 stalking behaviour could be dealt with under sections 2 and 4 of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. Section 2 harassment deals with harassment that causes alarm or distress and section 4 harassment deals with harassment that causes fear of violence. Campaigners called for the introduction of a stalking law to recognise that stalking and harassment are different crimes. Stalking is about obsessive fixation or pursuit and harassment is behaviour which upsets or offends. There are now two new stalking offences which sit alongside the harassment offences. These offences are section 2A stalking and section 4A stalking which causes serious distress or fear.
Suzy Lamplugh Trust welcomes any development that is designed to increase the protection available to victims of stalking. We are happy to see that stalking has been recognised as a specific crime in England and Wales as this gives victims the message that the behaviour they are experiencing will not be tolerated.
Strengthening the new law
We would like the law to go further by allowing the offence of stalking to carry a sentence matching that for Grievous Bodily Harm (serious assault). Prior to the introduction of legislation on harassment and stalking, a few cases of stalking which caused the victim to suffer from serious psychological trauma were successfully tried as serious assault, which carries a higher maximum sentence than the new stalking offences. We believe that this inconsistency may have the unintended consequence of undermining victim confidence in the legal system.
We would favour a simplification of the law on stalking to create one offence of stalking, based on the current section 4A of the Protection from Harassment Act, stalking which causes the victim serious distress or fear of violence. In our experience all victims of stalking experience an impact on their day to day lives and are often put in fear. If section 2A were to remain than we would like to see it become an ‘either way’ offense which would mean that it could be tried in either the Crown Court or the Magistrates Court. Currently section 2A is a summary only offence which means it can only be tried in the Magistrates Court and we do not think that this accurately reflects the seriousness of the crime.
The only distinction between section 2A stalking and section 2 harassment is the added evidential point in section 2A stalking that the course of conduct must ‘amount to stalking’. There is no further difference between the two crimes regarding the maximum sentence or possibility to apply for a restraining order. We believe that most people will struggle to understand the distinction between the two crimes and that prosecutors may be more likely to pursue a prosecution under section 2 harassment than under section 2A stalking, because a section 2 harassment offence will require fewer evidential points to be proven. This could result in both:
(a) a failure by the criminal justice system to recognise the impact on victims of being obsessively pursued, which is particular to stalking and
(b) the level of stalking convictions achieved being artificially suppressed
Breach of restraining order
Sentencing guidelines for the offence of breach of a restraining order state that sentencing should begin with consideration of a community sentence. In cases of stalking we would like to see these guidelines begin with consideration of a custodial sentence.
On average a stalking victim will experience 100 incidents before reporting the crime to the police (Sheridan 2005). This means that most victims of stalking will have experienced at least 101 unwanted intrusions when their restraining order is breached for the first time. Sentencing should reflect this. Not all breaches of restraining orders will warrant a custodial sentence but we would like to see the guidelines altered to reflect the experiences of stalking victims.
We are also concerned about the implementation of the new stalking law[s]. We believe that embedding training across all criminal justice agencies is necessary to ensure that victims of stalking receive appropriate support and an end to their stalking ordeal. Training is particularly important within the police, Crown Prosecution Service, Her Majesty’s Court Service, Prisons and Probation.
An inconsistent response from the criminal justice system has been shown to be one of the risk factors in stalking cases because it provides the stalker with confidence that their behaviour is untouchable. Training is therefore vital not just to reducing reoffending and appropriate sentencing but also to victims’ safety.
 Mullen, Pathé and Purcell (2009) Stalkers and Their Victims Cambridge University Press
We believe that all victims of crime, including victims of stalking should have legal rights. These should include:
- Regular updates about the investigation of a case
- To be informed immediately about significant case developments such as charging decisions and details of an offender’s release following a custodial sentence
- The right to information about the processes involved in the criminal justice system
The National Stalking Helpline hears from many victims of stalking who feel revicitimized by the criminal justice system. Victims tell us that this can have a significant effect on their emotional and mental health as well as prolonging the trauma they have experienced.
We regard cyberstalking as an extension of ‘offline’ stalking and consider online contact by stalkers with their victims as one of many tools in the stalker’s arsenal rather than a new crime. The majority of cases that the National Stalking Helpline deals with involve elements of both online contact, for example emails or messages posted on social networking sites, and offline contact, for example sending gifts or following. Cyberstalking should be treated as seriously as stalking and we think there should be a consistent response to victims of stalking, whether the stalking takes place online or offline.
We are concerned about repeat offending amongst stalkers, whether targeted against the same victim, repeatedly, or against multiple victims. It is therefore important that psychiatric assessments of stalkers are made at the earliest opportunity and followed by effective perpetrator treatment programmes.
We would like to see the creation of more treatment programmes specifically for stalkers both in and out of prison. Existing domestic abuse perpetrator programmes are not suitable for stalkers in most cases, particularly when the perpetrator has had no previous intimate relationship with the victim (this is the case for 60% of victims who contact the National Stalking Helpline). In many cases, putting a stalker who has had no relationship with their victim on a programme for domestic abusers may risk reinforcing the stalker’s unfounded belief that they are/have been in a relationship with their victim and therefore exacerbating their stalking behaviour.
Funding for stalking services
More financial resources are required to provide victims of stalking with the support they need. Despite the generous support of the Home Office and charitable trusts, The National Stalking Helpline is currently only able to answer half of the calls it receives. Alongside expanding this first response service, we would also like to see funding made available for specialist support services for stalking victims, training for professionals, case workers who can offer victims safety planning and advocacy support as well as treatment programmes for perpetrators.
Suzy Lamplugh Trust Comments on Other Personal Safety Issues
We recognize the intentions behind publicising local crime maps, to make members of the public aware of levels of recorded crime in their areas and to make individual police forces more accountable to their local residents. However we are concerned that the maps may, in fact, have the following, unintended consequences:
- Increasing fear of crime in areas with high levels of recorded crime: Suzy Lamplugh Trust believes that everyone has the right to live life safe and aims to enable individuals to understand and manage the risks to their personal safety. We regularly advise that the safest areas are those where there are a lot of people around and would therefore be concerned about any measures which deterred people from going out because of the fear of crime
- Offering a false sense of security in areas with low levels of recorded crime: Violence and aggression can occur even where levels of crime are generally low, so we advise people to stay alert even in so-called ‘safe’ areas
- Giving valuable information to criminals: showing which areas have recently seen a high number of burglaries and/or muggings and which haven’t, could be of benefit to criminals in planning where to target their activities. This could result not in a reduction of crime but a shift of crime from one area to another.
The maps are being promoted as a measure that will help to balance police cuts and make individual police forces more accountable to their local residents but it is hard to see how this will work in practice.
Suzy Lamplugh Trust is concerned at the growing trend within local authorities to save money by cutting down on street lighting. Whilst we understand that cuts are being made across many areas, we believe that lack of street lighting can increase the risks to public safety because the harder it is for someone to see danger approaching, the harder it is for them to avoid it.
In the majority of cases, the lights are ‘only’ being switched off from approx midnight to 5am but that still affects a great number of people coming home from a night out and the many thousands of employees who work shifts . The Trust believes these workers have as much a right to safety as anybody out on the street during the day or early evening.
People are far better informed than ever of the importance of only taking taxis or pre-booked, licencsed minicabs. But cheap, unlicensed cabs remain a serious risk and can be a tempting option after a night out for passengers eage to get home who may have forgotten to book a cab in advance.
What exacerbates the problem is the fact that many people still don’t know how to tell a licensed cab from an unlicensed one. We believe it should be made more obvious to everyone – including the uninformed tourist – which are the legitimate, licensed cabs and that this should be made inifrom across the UK.
We feel that while mini-cab licensing goes a long way towards improving the safety of passengers, there are two issues which concern us. The first is the problem with identification. We thinks it should be made more obvious to potential passengers if a cab is licensed or not and that any form of identification should be made uniform across the UK.
The second is the issue of how it is decided who should or should not be given a license due to a criminal record. Currently the decision as to who might be a danger to the public is left up to individuals within the relevant local authority. We commend Transport for london’s approach in having an extternal referral panel which considers borderline cases and beleives this model could be helpfully applied elsewhere.
Safety of Lone workers
Suzy Lamplugh Trust emphasises that all employees who come into contact with the general public can potentially be at risk of violence and aggression. However, anyone on their own – without the support and back up of colleagues – is more vulnerable than most.
Lone workers need systems and procedures that protect their safety. The lack of these can result not only in staff being put in unnecessary danger – and the employer at risk of litigation – but also low morale, lack of motivation, high levels of sick leave and a high staff turnover. These factors have a negative impact on the organisational performance as well as the individuals. Therefore Suzy Lamplugh Trust believes it pays both employer and employee to get it right.
Safety in Schools
We believe that everyone in a school community – teachers, pupils and visitors – should be made aware of the importance of their own and others’ personal safety.
Schools should ensure that everyone within their community knows that they have the right to feel safe regardless of their background, ethnicity, sexual orientation or ability.
Both staff and students should be encouraged to speak out at all times if they have a concern about their own or someone else’s safety and everyone in the community should be involved in helping to create an environment in which they can work and learn safely.
Personal Safety Advice
Much has been said and written about whether or not bystanders should get involved if they see someone else being physically assaulted. Suzy Lamplugh Trust understands that whilst not getting involved is clearly the safest option, many people may feel the need to do something but are not sure what. It’s important to recognise that no one course of action is correct; each situation is different and bystanders should try to weigh up potential risks before they take any action.
This simply means making an immediate assessment of the situation and deciding how dangerous it could be to get physically involved, weighed against how effective their help would be. In some cases, the attention and the appearance of potential witnesses would be enough to deter the attacker.
If a bystander can attempt to make a risk assessment and realises that by intervening they will be putting themselves at significant risk, they can at least then make a clearer decision as to what action to take, as opposed to jumping in without thinking.
Alcohol & Safety
Alcohol is a mind altering substance which impairs our ability to make safe decisions and choices. Even a few drinks can make a person decide to take risks which they wouldn’t normally take – such as getting into an unlicensed minicab or taking s short cut through a deserted park late at night.
We are corned theat the culture of binge drinking in teh UK increases the pressure on individuals to take these risks, which can make them more vulnerable to violence and aggression. We advise that we can all reduce our risk of becoming vulnerable by limiting our alcohol intake.
Gap Year Travel
There are dangers for the unprepared that can cause foreign trips to end in disaster, however Suzy Lamplugh Trust believes that the majority of problems occur due to the lack of knowledge and understanding of the culture of the country or countries that are being visited.
Suzy Lamplugh Trust stresses that it is vital that travellers find out in advance as much as they can about the country or countries they plan to visit. The more knowledge they have the safer they will be.
Some of the factors to be considered if you wish to avoid potentially dangerous situations are dress, social relations, politics, body language, hand signals and the law.
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People are seldom more relaxed, less on guard and, in many cases, more likely to have had too much to drink on a nightly basis, than when they are on holiday. Add to that the fact that they usually don’t know the dangerous and safe areas of their holiday destination, the culture or even how to tell a reputable taxi from a rogue one, and it’s easy to see why holidays can be a recipe for disaster.
We believe that people need to make a conscious decision before going on holiday that they are going to take sensible precautions to protect their safety – and they need to ensure that too much sun, sea and sangria doesn’t affect that decision when they get there.
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