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On 20 January 2020, the UK government introduced new Stalking Protection Orders (SPOs), intended to provide additional protection to victims of stalking.
However, some campaign bodies have argued that the new safeguards could potentially put victims more at risk, if they are used as an alternative to prosecutions.
Now, with stalking statistics on the rise, and fears that lockdown measures will contribute to an increase in cyberstalking, Action Against Stalking is campaigning for UK-wide changes to the law.
The statistics relating to stalking are startling. The Crime Survey for England and Wales found that almost one in five women over age 16 have experienced stalking. For men, this ratio is one in ten.
Meanwhile, between 2014-2015, the Home Office recorded 2,882 stalking offences. Shockingly, by 2017-2018, this figure had jumped to 10,214. However, the actual figures are expected to be much higher, as a study by Dr Lorraine Sheridan found that, on average, victims do not report to the police until the 100th incident.
Unfortunately, these figures are only on the rise. Last year, Wales saw the number of stalking and harassment cases increase by a third, according to the latest figures released by the Office for National Statistics. Police forces recorded a staggering 33% rise, and specifically Dyfed-Powys Police saw stalking cases increase by 146%.
Even more concerning is the lack of progress that has been made in relation to stalking convictions. In 2018, of the 6,702 cases in which a charge could be brought, only a quarter actually led to a conviction. In 2015, over half of reported stalking incidents resulted in further action.
Moreover, the consequences of such a low conviction rate should not be underestimated. In a report exploring the relationship between stalking and homicide, it was found that stalking behaviours were present in 94% of the homicide cases studied. Key observations found that:
When stalking reports are disregarded, there are potentially fatal results. A Freedom of Information (FOI) request in 2018, showed that in the UK, between 2015-2017, a total of 55 women were murdered, after they had reported the threatening behaviour of their killers to police and were ignored. Laura Richards, from Paladin Advocacy Service, has subsequently called stalking “murder in slow motion”.
Charities have also warned that there may potentially be a rise in cyberstalking over the lockdown period, as stalkers opt for social media, texts and other forms of messaging to harass their victims. The charity also highlighted that the nature of lockdown also enables stalkers to zone in on their victims location and intimidate them in a more targeted way. Expanding on this, Kate Wallace, Victim Support Scotland Chief Executive said: “Over two-thirds of stalking victims have received unwanted messages sent by text, email or messengers, and posts on social media. These figures are sure to rise as the lockdown situation exacerbates the problem, leaving people more vulnerable”.
The new Stalking Protection Orders (SPOs) introduced back in January, are intended to combat stalking. In an effort to provide victims with respite from their stalkers, the new measures ban them from visiting a victim’s workplace, home and place of study, as well as preventing them from contacting victims. Additionally, the SPO can force perpetrators to seek out professional help. Meanwhile, as victims await the court’s decision, it can impose an interim SPO for the victim’s “immediate protection”.
These orders typically last for a minimum of two years, and a breach is considered a criminal offence. This can land the stalker in prison for up to five years. The first SPO was issued to a 22-year-old man by Brighton Magistrates’ Court.
Speaking about the importance of introducing these measures, Minister for Safeguarding and Vulnerability, Victoria Atkins said: “Every year, thousands of people live with the terrifying experience of being stalked, which can lead to victims feeling isolated, abused or even losing their lives. I am determined that we do everything we can to better protect victims and new Stalking Protection Orders will help the police to intervene and take action against perpetrators at the earliest opportunity”.
The new measures were initially welcomed by anti-stalking charities. Suky Bhaker Acting Chief Executive of The Suzy Lamplugh Trust, for example, said: “Today is an important step forward in the way stalking is handled in England and Wales and an acknowledgement of the suffering victims of stalking can face. We welcome the introduction of Stalking Protection Orders and hope to see the new order complement the existing legislation to ensure that victims receive a proactive response when they come forward and report stalking”.
However, some experts have warned against SPOs being used as an alternative to prosecutions. Ultimately, if stalkers are not in custody and receiving help with their issues, then they pose a serious risk to their victims. Rachel Horman, Chair of Paladin, a national stalking advocacy service, explained: “This would be a retrograde step and could lead to an increase in homicides”.
One campaign group, Action Against Stalking, is fighting to establish UK-wide law change relating to stalking. Ann Moulds, Founder of the group, who suffered a stalking experience herself, significantly contributed to the enshrinement of anti-stalking legislation into Scottish law back in 2010. Through her campaigning, the creation and inclusion of Section 39 of the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scot) Act 2010 was introduced. This legislation enabled the prosecution of stalking crimes based on “the stalker’s behaviour and the effects on the victim”. Now, her group are campaigning for this to be replicated across the UK, with the creation of a singular stalking offence to safeguard victims.
While 2012 saw the government introduce two additional stalking offences into the 1997 Harassment Act, the group say that ultimately it “[fails] victims” due to it being “ineffective at capturing those behaviours that constitute stalking”.
Speaking about the importance of implementing the group’s proposed legislation across the UK, Anna Moulds said: “What is the point in England, Wales and Scotland having different pieces of legislation? We need to harmonise it because we know stalking is a cross-border offence”.
Anna Moulds has helped Nikita Rogers, who has also suffered from a terrifying stalking experience, build a case to help change UK law. It is due to be presented to Home Secretary Priti Patel over the next few weeks.
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