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We Asked an Expert Why the UK Is so Bad at Prosecuting Stalkers

When harassment crosses over from weird but endearing to creepy, why do laws in the UK seem slow to catch up and protect people?
April 24, 2016, 2:14pm

This article originally appeared on VICE UK

Love makes us irrational. Unrequited love, probably more so. When I first read that last month's hijacked EgyptAir flight might have boiled down to a man's desperation to see his ex-wife, I didn't think: Aw, what a sweet display of puppy-dog devotion, but more: If they're divorced why can't this dude let it go, it's done mate.

Harassment couched as infatuation pretty easily blurs the line between creepy and cute. But when it comes to strangers, where the pretense of love isn't even established, we tread closer towards actual stalking. We've reached the end of National Stalking Awareness Week in the UK, kicked off last Sunday by Lily Allen's horrific story of being hounded for seven years without major police intervention until her stalker broke into her flat and possibly took her bag. Only when her case became one about property theft did the police seem able to handle it.

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About one-third of more than 3,100 stalking complaints from 2014 to 2015 led to victims starting prosecution. Out of those, 427 could have led to an actual conviction, of a maximum five years. That number looked low, so I rang up Rachel Horman, a solicitor specializing in stalking and domestic abuse and chair of stalking victim advocacy service Paladin, to find out why our legal process hasn't quite figured out how to find, prosecute, and keep track of stalkers.

VICE: Hi Rachel, what's the deal with the UK's stalking law?
Rachel Horman: I think one of the issues around the stalking legislation, and the reason it's not used sufficiently, is probably around training and knowledge of the police. We've had the stalking legislation in now for almost four years, however it's not used very often at all by police. Or when the police do look to charge with stalking, they go to the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service], who quite often say "no, there's not sufficient evidence" in many cases.

The first harassment law was introduced in 1997. Why did it take that long to codify anti-harassment?
Well, there simply wasn't any legislation to help people. If someone had been in a relationship with their partner, they couldn't rely on the criminal law. So they'd come to solicitors like me to try and get a civil order—an injunction—to keep this person away. Even then, they could only do that if they'd been in a relationship with the person. If it was a stranger, they would struggle to even get a civil order against the stalker.

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It was cases like TV presenter Jill Dando's that highlighted problems with the law. I know it was never proven what happened to Dando, but at the time it was reported that a stalker had been following her—and nothing could be done in cases like that. That's how the law developed. You'd imagine that there should've been something way before then.

What was the next major breakthrough?
The law created the criminal offence of stalking in 2012. Before, we had the Protection from Harassment Act of 1997. But that didn't really reflect the reality of the situation. When someone says "harassment" you think about two neighbors arguing over the height of a hedge, whereas stalking makes you think of something very different.

What's the difference between harassment and stalking, in the eyes of the law?
When someone has on their criminal record that they've been convicted of harassment versus being convicted of stalking, they'll be treated very differently. Once Laura Richards, Paladin's founder, campaigned to bring the specific offense of stalking in, it was accepted pretty quickly that the harassment legislation didn't reflect the seriousness of the situation for people who are being stalked.

What hasn't the new law sorted out?
Paladin are campaigning to increase the sentence for stalking—where the maximum is currently five years. There's a consultation taking place as to whether there should be a stalking protection order, and that's just finished—but that would only last 28 days. Now the next step is for the government to consider that.

READ: This Woman Blogs About Her Private Stalker

But in cases when it comes time to prosecute, what happens?
There are two kinds of courts: civil and criminal. It's easier to prosecute in the civil court, which says you only have to work on the balance of probabilities and be 51 percent sure, rather than the criminal court, where it's proof beyond reasonable doubt. In the criminal court you have to be more like 95 percent sure.

So it's easier to prove in civil court, but the problem is that you have to take the case to court yourself, which can be expensive. In a criminal case, the lawyers on behalf of the police do it, and you're just a witness. Some people are able to get legal aid for some civil cases, but that's being restricted, so when it's not realistic for victims to get a civil case they rely on the criminal law.

When you go for a criminal case, what are the benefits? If it's harder to prove, what's the pay-off?
It creates a criminal record, for starters, unlike a civil case. If someone's sent down for breaking a court order in a civil case that doesn't show up on their record to highlight future problems. Victims shouldn't even have to come to lawyers in these sorts of cases—they should just be able to report it to the police, take it to court, and have the police do the jobs we pay them to do. In Lily Allen's case, he wasn't even charged with stalking but with harassment.

How can the laws be made more effective, though?
By introducing a serial stalker's register, like the sexual offender's register, and a serial stalker's order. So serial stalkers would have to tell the police when they move address, tell the police when they change their name and tell the police when they're in a new relationship, so they could be monitored. At the moment they can't do that, even when the police know that someone is dangerous and goes from one victim to the next. We need to be more proactive to stop forcing the people who've been stalked to constantly alter their lifestyles.

Thanks, Rachel.

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