November 2016 marked the four year anniversary of the stalking law which was introduced on 25th November 2012, when the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 was amended to include the stalking offence. The offence was set out specifically in sections 2A (stalking) and 4A (stalking involving fear of violence and stalking involving alarm and distress) of the Act, with campaigners hoping that this would lead to more prosecutions and better protection for victims.

 

At the National Stalking Helpline, every day we hear from numerous victims who report stalking behaviours from ex-intimate partners, strangers, colleagues as well as the fast growing cyberstalking problem. A large number of calls are from people who are unsure that their experience constitutes stalking or worry that they are over-reacting, and so they call us in order to validate their concerns and seek information and advice on how they can report the situation to the police and move forward. 

 

Our team of highly trained and dedicated advisors listens to a range of different calls. The anti-stalking law has been in place since 2012 but we often hear from very frustrated clients, who state that they have not been believed, either by their friends, family members or the police. Their situations have not been treated as stalking, but as harassment or more than often, they have been dismissed by the police and lacked support. For example, we have spoken to victims of online stalking and harassment who have simply been advised by police to come offline. Others have been told that they risk being prosecuted under stalking legislation for viewing the social media of their stalker, something that many victims will do in order to assess and manage any risk that they may face.  In other cases, the incidents of stalking are treated as isolated incidents and not considered collectively as the pursuit of a ‘course of conduct’ as stipulated in stalking legislation.

 

Despite the introduction of anti-stalking laws four years ago, our experience unfortunately shows that these laws are poorly understood by many frontline police officers and inadequately implemented to protect and support the more than one million people who identify as being stalked every year.  The number of prosecutions for section 4A offences for the past year remains woefully low at 199. Furthermore, often higher level offences (such as those which would fall under section 4A of the Protection from Harassment Act), are prosecuted at a lower level resulting in a lesser penalty and therefore reduced protection for the victim.

 

We have seen that the lack of support from the criminal justice system can have a detrimental effect on victims’ emotional well-being and motivation to get in touch with support networks, or the confidence to report any further incidents that have occurred. The work of stalking support services such as the helpline remains as important as ever to ensure that victims’ voices are heard and that services (both statutory and non-statutory) knowledgeable, victim focused and understand the challenges of managing perpetrators and supporting victims.