What is the legal definition of stalking and what are the punishments?

New guidance means police forces face fewer barriers when it comes to protecting victims of stalkers.

Scared young woman with blonde hair looking back over her shoulder at a stranger in a black trench coat that is following behind her downtown in an urban city.
New guidance will make it easier for victims of stalking to protect themselves. (File photo posed by models: Getty Images)

Victims of stalking will be able to receive protection more easily under new guidance announced on Monday.

On the first day of National Stalking Awareness Week, the government has announced plans to give police forces fewer barriers to obtaining court orders against stalkers.

Under updated statuary guidance from the Home Office, police officers will no longer have to meet the criminal standard of evidence (beyond all reasonable doubt) when applying for stalking protection orders (SPOs), and will instead have to meet the lower civil standard, which is on the balance of probability.

It means a lower threshold of evidence will be accepted by courts to apply a stalking protection order.

SPOs were introduced in January 2020 and aim to protect victims by addressing the perpetrator's behaviours before it becomes entrenched or more severe, the Home Office says. Under the orders, perpetrators may face restrictions such as having to notify police of their whereabouts or travel. A breach of an order could result in a prison sentence of up to five years.

National Stalking Awareness Week begins amid increasing reports of stalking, voyeurism, cyber-flashing and upskirting. Two women told The Guardian on Monday how someone filmed a voyeuristic video of their bodies as they walked down a busy Manchester street during the day last April.

The pair only found out about what happened when they were contacted separately on Instagram by an anonymous person with a link to the footage. They reported the incident to police but have not heard anything.

Minister for Victims and Safeguarding, Laura Farris takes part in a media interview during a visit to Fulham Cross Academy, south west London, following an announcement of an update on mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse and on sex offender management. Picture date: Monday February 19, 2024. (Photo by Jonathan Brady/PA Images via Getty Images)
Minister for victims and safeguarding Laura Farris has welcomed the latest guidance on stalking. (PA Images via Getty Images)

Victims minister Laura Farris said: “Stalking is a complex form of abuse and it can have a devastating impact on the lives of victims and their families. Sadly, it can end in the most tragic circumstances. We must continue to treat stalking with the utmost gravity. Having doubled the maximum sentence and introduced a new civil order to protect victims, we know there is more we must do.”

In 2017, the government increased the maximum sentence for the most serious kinds of stalking from five years to 10 years.

Emma Lingley-Clark, chief executive of the Suzy Lamplugh Trust charity, named after an estate agent who went missing in London in 1986, welcomed the changes, saying the previous standard had been “a barrier to victims getting immediate protection when they need it the most”.

What is the legal definition of stalking?

According to the police, stalking and harassment is when "someone repeatedly behaves in a way that makes you feel scared, distressed or threatened".

The Sentencing Council says stalking involves "persistently following someone". It says: "It does not necessarily mean following them in person and can include watching, spying or forcing contact with the victim through any means, including through social media."

What are the punishments for stalking?

Harassment and stalking are classed as offences under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.

If the offence is harassment or stalking, the maximum sentence is six months in prison. If it is racially or religiously aggravated, the maximum sentence is two years in custody.

For the more serious offence of harassment (putting people in fear of violence) or stalking (involving fear of violence or serious alarm or distress), the maximum sentence is 10 years in custody, going up to 14 years if racially or religiously aggravated.

What are cyber-flashing and upskirting?

Cyber-flashing is a form of digital harassment or sexual misconduct that involves sending unsolicited explicit images or videos of genitalia or other intimate body parts to another person via text, email or social media platforms.

Wanted hackers coding virus ransomware using laptops and computers. Cyber attack, system breaking and malware concept.
Police forces have been given fewer barriers to protect victims of stalking. (File photo: Getty Images)

In February, Nicholas Hawkes, 39, from Basildon, Essex, became the first person in England and Wales to be convicted of cyber-flashing, after admitting two counts of sending a photograph or film of genitals to cause alarm, distress or humiliation. He was later sentenced to 66 weeks in prison.

Cyber-flashing because a criminal offence in England and Wales at the end of January and carries a maximum sentence of two years in prison, but has been a crime in Scotland since 2010.

Upskirting is the act of taking a photo or video underneath a person's clothing without their consent, typically to capture images of their underwear, genitals or buttocks.

Upskirting became a criminal offence in England, Scotland and Wales in 2019, and offenders can be jailed for two years if found guilty. The government is also making public sexual harassment a specific criminal offence, which will see perpetrators face up to two years in prison, and comes into force from October.

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