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Criminal Defence Articles

A Guide to Stalking and Harassment Offences

Stalking and harassment are words that are often bandied around in jest by people when discussing their previous partners. But in what circumstances are you actually committing a criminal offence? The law on harassment has been amended several times in the last decade, which means that there are a few different definitions of the act of harassment within legal parlance. This can make matters confusing. What’s more it is all too common for accusations to fly around when a relationship ends, and sometimes the police become involved. When this happens, it is important to know your legal rights so that you can ensure that your voice is heard within the criminal justice process. This article explores the criminal offences of harassment and stalking. It explains the procedure that the police will follow when investigating these offences. Finally, it looks at the sentence that you could face if you are convicted of one of those offences.

What is the criminal offence of harassment?

The law in the UK has different ways of prohibiting harassment. There are three key pieces of legislation that relate to the offence of harassment. These are:

Harassment under the PHA

The PHA does not define harassment itself, but it is widely understood that harassment usually relates to a course of conduct. This means that whilst it could arise from a one-off offence, it more often than not relates to a series of events.

The offence of harassment is set out at Section 1 and Section 2 of the PHA, which establish that harassment is illegal where the conduct amounts to harassment and the offender knows or ought to know that his or her conduct is harassment.

Harassment can be committed by one or more people; it can also be directed at one or more victims. Harassment can also be committed by harassing those connected to the victim such as family members, friends, and employees.

There is a more serious offence of putting people in fear of violence at Section 4. This is committed where the defendant puts the victim in fear of violence on at least two occasions and knows or ought to know that his or her conduct will have this effect.

In order to prove harassment under the PHA, the CPS have to show that:

  • the conduct was targeted at an individual;
  • it was calculated to alarm or cause him/her distress; and that
  • the conduct was oppressive and unreasonable.

Harassment under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998

Section 28 of the Crime and Disorder Act imposes more serious penalties for harassment where it is racially aggravated. A racially aggravated offence is one where before or at the time of the offence the offender demonstrates hostility towards the victim’s racial group or presumed racial group.

Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004

This law gives the criminal court the power to make a restraining order against the defendant, even when he or she has already been acquitted. This power is available where the court considers it necessary to do so to protect the complainant from ongoing stalking or harassment from the defendant. This could happen where the court perceives that the complainant is at risk, but the evidence is not strong enough to convict the defendant.

Is it illegal to stalk someone in the UK?                    

Stalking is illegal pursuant to the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, which amended the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 by adding two new sections.

Section 2A sets out the offence of stalking. It does not provide an overall definition of stalking, but it does give examples of conduct which, in particular circumstances, could amount to stalking. These include:

  • following a person
  • contacting, or attempting to contact, a person by any means,
  • publishing any statement or other material that relates or purports to relate to a person, or purports to originate from a person
  • monitoring the use by a person of the internet, email, or any other form of electronic communication
  • loitering in any place (whether public or private)
  • interfering with any property in the possession of a person
  • watching or spying on a person.

Section 4A sets out a more serious offence of stalking that causes fear of violence or serious harm and distress. Serious harm and distress is defined as conduct that has a substantial adverse effect on the victim’s day to day activities. This is a much more serious offence, which could result in a hefty prison sentence if you are convicted.

What happens when you file a police report for harassment or stalking in the UK?

When the police receive a report of activity that appears to be a criminal offence, they are obliged to open a case and investigate.

A police investigation should involve pursuing all reasonable lines of enquiry. This includes pursuing both evidence that supports the complainant’s case and any evidence that might support a defence. Because of this, the police should not take sides. They should remain neutral and ensure that they listen to the account of the complainant, as well as the account of the alleged perpetrator. If the defendant raises a defence such as an alibi or makes a counter-allegation, this should be investigated.

If the police officer investigating the offence has a reasonable suspicion that a criminal offence is, has, or is about to be committed, they may exercise their power of arrest where the arrest is deemed necessary.

Alternatively, they may invite the suspect to a voluntary police interview. If you are called to an interview, you have the right to have a legal representative with you. You also have the right to remain silent, but know that if you choose to remain silent this could count against you later on, so you should discuss your options with your lawyer. After the interview, the police could be ready to make a charging decision on the case, or they may pursue further lines of inquiry. In some serious cases, the suspect could be remanded in custody pending the conclusion of the police investigation, and following the charge.

In a stalking or harassment case, the police may seize electronic devices such as mobile phones, tablets, and laptops to look for evidence of the criminal offence. They may also interview family members, friends, or colleagues of the complainant/suspect in order to obtain evidence that either corroborates or undermines the allegations that have been made. In some cases, it may also be necessary for the police to explore forensic evidence.

Whilst the police are obliged to take a balanced approach to criminal investigations, sometimes it may not feel this way if you have been accused of a criminal offence. Remember that no matter how strong the police feel that the evidence is against you, they are obliged to follow due process. If you think that the police have acted improperly, you should inform your criminal defence solicitor.

Can you get sent to prison for harassment in the UK?

Serious cases of harassment could result in a prison sentence. If you are convicted of harassment under Section 2 of PHA, you could face a prison sentence of up to 6 months. Where the offence is racially aggravated, you could receive a prison sentence of up to 2 years if the case is heard in the Crown Court.

The more serious offence of putting people in fear of violence has a maximum sentence of up to 10 years’ imprisonment if it is heard in the Crown Court. If it is heard in the Magistrates’ Court, the maximum sentence is 6 months.

Not all cases of harassment will receive a prison sentence. In less serious cases, you could receive a community level order or a fine.

What is the punishment for stalking in the UK?

Stalking is a serious offence that could result in a prison sentence. If you are convicted of stalking under 2A of the PHA, it is a summary only offence, which means it must be heard in the Magistrates’ Court. The maximum sentence is 6 months’ imprisonment.

Under 4A of the PHA, the maximum sentence for stalking where the person has been put in fear of violence or serious alarm and distress is 10 years’ imprisonment, where the case is heard in the Crown Court. Where the case is heard in the Magistrates’ Court, the maximum sentence is 12 months’ imprisonment.

Where to get further help?

If you have been accused of a stalking or harassment offence, it is likely that you are feeling confused and worried. You may be assessing your options and wondering what your next step should be. At Stuart Miller Solicitors, our experienced criminal defence team will help you put your best foot forwards. We will help explore every avenue in order to prepare the best possible defence. You could even get your case dropped before it ever goes to court. Contact us for a no-obligation consultation today.

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