UK

Stalking prosecutions at record high after new law

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Media caption'Mandy' describes being stalked by her ex-husband, as Daniel Boettcher reports

A record number of people were charged with stalking-related offences in England and Wales last year.

Stalking and harassment prosecutions between April 2013 and March 2014 rose to 10,535, up 20% on the previous year.

The Crown Prosecution Service says more than 743 of these cases were brought under new legislation and may not have previously come to court.

Meanwhile, police and prosecutors have been given guidance to improve the way stalking cases are dealt with.

Two specific criminal offences of stalking were introduced in November 2012.

Up to then people accused of stalking were prosecuted under harassment laws - but only when their actions were seen to cause a fear of violence. The new offences created under the Protection of Freedoms Act meant a charge could be brought when an alleged stalker's behaviour caused serious alarm or distress.

Director of Public Prosecutions Alison Saunders, said: "These new offences enable us to bring people to court potentially before they risk going on to commit more serious crimes.

"The rise in prosecutions sends a message to both victims and criminals about how seriously we are taking these types of offences."

Personal statement

The Protocol on the Appropriate Handling of Stalking Offences, drafted and agreed by the Crown Prosecution Service and Association of Chief Police Officers, aims to see a consistent approach to the crime adopted across England and Wales.

It says victims should be consulted on bail issues and restraining orders, which are designed to stop stalkers contacting them, and always be given the opportunity to make a personal statement in court.

And prosecutors should apply, where possible, for restraining orders in the event of a conviction or acquittal.

The guidance says restraining orders on acquittal can protect victims where the likelihood of abuse may be "beyond the balance of probabilities" - a lower standard of proof than that usually required in criminal convictions of "beyond reasonable doubt".

It also says the reason for a victim withdrawing a complaint should be investigated to make sure it is not the result of pressure from others.

Rachel Griffin, director of the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, the charity behind the National Stalking Helpline, said: "We often hear from victims of stalking... who need more and better support through both the investigation and trial process.

"The next steps have to be to ensure that all officers are trained to ensure that the guidance in the protocols become a reality."

'At risk'

Laura Richards, chief executive of support group Paladin, welcomed the guidance but suggested a lack of investment in the training of prosecutors over how to approach stalking had resulted in victims being "continually let down and put further at risk".

She added: "This must be made a reality in prosecutors' day-to-day practice to ensure stalkers are put before the courts for stalking and that appropriate sentences and treatment results."

The new guidance also addresses online stalking.

Jennifer Perry from the Digital Trust, which was set up to help organisations address internet abuse, said "the increasing volume and the technical nature are proving to be a challenge for criminal justice agencies and traditional support charities, who are struggling to cope".

The trust also suggested the CPS follow Scotland's example of appointing a lead prosecutor to deal with stalking, as well as victims' advocates.

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