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Most people will be familiar with the idea of harassment without actually knowing that, in law at least, there are different types of harassment offences with different requirements and different levels of punishment if you are found guilty. If you have been charged with harassment, it is critical that you know exactly what type of harassment you have been charged with and are aware of your next steps in terms of putting together a defence. In this article, we look at the two main types of harassment offence (comparing them to the closely related offence of stalking) and then examine in detail how judges will go about coming up with a sentence for someone who is found guilty of such an offence.
Harassment is closely related to the offence of stalking, and as such you will often find these two offences covered by the same pieces of legislation and charged together in the same cases. In England and Wales, harassment and stalking are offences under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 and the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. The latter statute covers offences that are racially or religiously aggravated, which are seen as more serious by the courts for a number of reasons. What is key in both of these offences, however, is that the behaviour that is being alleged is proven to be repeated and unwanted by the victim.
Harassment in particular is understood to be behaviour that intends to cause alarm or distress to another person or persons (whether or not it actually does is irrelevant). One-off events are not covered by this law; instead, and as mentioned, the behaviour must be repeated. The repeated behaviour can happen in a short space of time or in a longer space of time; what matters is that there has been more than one occasion of such behaviour. That being said, the behaviour itself does not have to be the same each time – it just has to count as harassment.
Behaviours that are commonly involved in harassment cases include:
There is also a more serious offence of harassment involving putting people in fear of violence. As the name suggests, this type of harassment does not just involve the type of behaviour described above, but it has an additional element of making the victim fear that they will be subject to violence either at that time or at some time in future.
It doesn’t matter what type of violence the person thinks they will face, and it doesn’t matter whether or not you as the alleged offender intended for the person to feel like they would face violence. If the person worries that violence will result from your alleged repeated and unwanted behaviour, then that is usually sufficient for this charge to be brought.
Very closely related to these offences are the offences related to stalking. Like harassment, stalking has two levels of offence; one that does not involve the fear of violence and another that does.
Stalking is defined somewhat more simply as persistently following someone, and that can include spying on them or trying to force contact with them, such as by repeatedly texting them or trying to engage with them on social media.
Again, the more serious offence is conducting that behaviour where the victim fears violence or is experiencing serious alarm or distress. In those circumstances, the prosecution will have to prove that the stalking has had a substantial adverse effect on the victim’s day-to-day activities. The prosecution might be able to prove this by producing evidence that somebody has, for example, moved house, had to obtain mental health support, has increased the security around their home (for example, by putting up additional fences or security cameras), or changed their routine to avoid contact or potential contact with the stalker.
Note that where there is any racial or religious motivation for these offences, the behaviour will be seen as significantly more serious and will be prosecuted (and punished, if relevant) accordingly.
The maximum sentence for the lesser offence of simple harassment, is 6 months’ imprisonment in normal cases and 2 years’ imprisonment where the harassment was racially or religiously aggravated. For the more serious offence of harassment with fear of violence, the maximum sentence is 10 years’ imprisonment, or 14 years’ imprisonment if there was also racial or religious aggravation motivating the behaviour.
These two levels of sentencing also apply to the two levels of stalking offences.
In general, judges look at two things when they are deciding the sentence that any criminal should face once they have been found guilty. The first thing that a judge will look at is culpability, which is another way of asking how responsible somebody was for their role in a crime.
The other factor that they will look at is harm, which is the harm specifically caused to the victim as a result of the offending behaviour.
Simply put, where the culpability or harm is higher, the sentence/punishment will be more severe. The adverse is also true, and where the culpability or harm is lower, typically the sentence/punishment will also be less severe.
In order to make this determination, a judge needs to look at what are called ‘aggravating’ and ‘mitigating’ factors respectively.
Aggravating factors in the case of harassment might include:
Mitigating factors, on the other hand, might include:
Once the judge has taken these factors into account, it is his or her task to balance each of the factors and decide on a fair sentence considering the big picture. Judges do have sentencing guidelines to use as they make this determination, but their decision will also be influenced by their experience in cases like yours in the past. This is why it is so important to make sure that you have experienced legal representation to aid in mounting your defence. If your legal team was unable to get the case dropped, or they were unable to prove your innocence at trial, they still have a role to play in making sure that your sentence is as lenient as possible.
As an offender who has been proven guilty, the best thing that you can do to have your sentence reduced is to show remorse, show acceptance of your plea and your punishment, and secure an experienced legal team who can put forward the best plea of mitigation for you in court.
Sometimes, judges do allow guilty parties to write to them to explain their situation, or indeed to explain their situation and why they should receive a lesser sentence in court. You cannot always guarantee that this will be the case though, so having excellent legal representation in place is the most reliable safeguard.
If you have been charged with harassment without violence and you are wondering what to do next, the best thing to do is contact a reputable and experienced criminal defence firm that can walk you through your options and explain the next steps in your case. The team at Stuart Miller Solicitors have been practising in this area for decades and have a robust criminal defence team ready to help you. With a high success rate in this area, we could even get your case dropped before it gets to trial. Contact us today for a free consultation.
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