Will new stalking laws help victims?

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Sitting with me at the Women’s Aid office for Wellingborough and East Northamptonshire, a support worker described the horrors of relentless stalking she had seen, involving the kind of people who will sit outside a victim’s house all day or hide in gardens, so intent are they on wielding some kind of control.

I thought of one offender sitting huddled in bushes, outside a victim’s house, for hours on end, in winter, and wondered what would lead a person to such lengths. But according to this branch of Women’s Aid, stalking is often involved in domestic abuse and makes up about 50 per cent of the organisation’s cases.

One woman, they tell me, had to be rescued through the window of a house when her stalker had locked her in, taking her children’s shoes and shutting the footwear in the boot of his car to prevent the family’s escape.

At the end of November, action was finally taken by the Government to make stalking – whether involving an ex-partner, another known person, or a stranger – a specific criminal offence for the first time.

Two new offences of “stalking” and “stalking involving fear of violence or alarm or distress” have now come into force, along with additional powers for police officers to get involved by searching properties.

Previously treated under harassment laws, will this new legislation mean any real difference to stalking victims, and have the changes gone far enough?

A spokesman for Wellingborough and East Northants Women’s Aid said: “It was difficult to get convictions under just harassment and we welcome any legislation protecting people.”

But difficulties can arise when it comes to actually collating enough evidence regarding stalking, according to the experience seen in some Women’s Aid cases.

They said they would advise people to report incidents and collect a log of behaviour, including screenshots of Facebook pages. Even if a single message may seem harmless on the face of it, stalking behaviour can escalate.

The spokesman said: “If it escalates, at the moment we can get a non-molestation order or injunction but it can take months of low-level stalking. It is not a bad thing, but we still have to prove so much. If they are texting straight out, ‘this is what I’m going to do to you,’ then that is easy to prove, but sometimes someone can know they are being stalked but it is more difficult to prove.”

Stephanie Challis from the Northamptonshire Sunflower Centre, which supports high-risk victims of domestic abuse across the county, said: “This news on stalking offences is good news; anything to make domestic violence criminality more criminal. That is the definition now and that means they can take a more robust approach.

“But it is like any of these things, quite often it is one person’s word against another’s. Our advice is to record everything that happens, what times it happened, did anyone witness it and how it made you feel. That helps to build up a body of evidence against that person.

“Stalking is quite common when an abusive relationship ends. The first few months are the most dangerous in terms of increased pressure and stalking-type behaviours. But it can happen with people who have been separated over a period of time too.”

Social networking can provide an extra tool for stalkers, one fact about which support workers are keenly aware.

Stephanie continued: “There are ways of protecting yourself on Facebook, but you have to manage your account so only the people you want to see something can see it.

“I would also say, consider ‘do you need to be on Facebook?’ If not, then come off it. Make sure you block that person and any known associates. Think about the people you know and how they are associated with your ex-partner.”

Northamptonshire Police now has a team of specially trained officers which makes up the domestic abuse unit.

This unit investigates any stalking or harassment offences.

Det Insp Andy Glenn, who leads the unit, said: “Forty per cent of stalking cases will be by an ex-partner and in the vast majority of cases it will be someone who is known to the victim.

“It is a prevalent problem. One of the things I want to get across is that people should report incidents and seek advice. Our priority is to make the victim safer, sometimes that can be getting someone into a refuge or issuing a warning can be enough to stop the behaviour.

“We were using the Protection from Harassment Act but there were things that were difficult to prove. With this specific legislation on stalking, things like following a person, contacting a person or attempting to contact them by any means, monitoring their communication, loitering in a place where they are likely to be, or spying on them, are covered.

“With things like Facebook and Twitter, obviously it is a lot easier for people to find out about people and we would urge people who think they are being stalked to visit www.nationalstalkinghelpline.org, which has safety advice.

“This legislation sends out the message that stalking is a serious issue and people will be brought to justice. In serious cases it does make a victim’s life a misery. With the first offence of stalking, someone could get up to six months and for the more serious offence someone can be in prison for five years.

“What we really want to be confident about is that people will report it to us. As well as the police there is the Sunflower Centre, Women’s Aid and the National Stalking Helpline.”

To contact the police, call 101, or 999 in an emergency. Women’s Aid Wellingborough and East Northamptonshire can be contacted on 01933 224943. For more information about the Sunflower Centre, ring 01604 233684 or 01536 204691.