Better known as the "Stalker's Act", this Act came into force on 16th June 1997. Its aim is to catch all types of harassment, not just offences such as stalking. It can include neighbourhood disputes, racial hatred, bullying at work, confrontation with the media, domestic violence as well as the policing of hunt protestors, industrial strikers or noisy or nuisance tenants.
What's covered by the Act?
The Act states that a person must not pursue a course of conduct which s/he knows (or ought to know) amounts to the harassment of another.
It is not necessary to prove that the person intended his/her conduct to amount to harassment. The test is whether a reasonable person who had the same information would think that it amounted to harassment.
Harassment is not defined by the Act, but will include verbal harassment. The courts will probably have to rely upon the dictionary definition (to worry, pester, annoy, distress etc). The factors which may be taken into account include:
where and when the conduct occurred;
the relationship between the harasser and victim; and
the previous dealings between the parties.
The codes of practice issued by the EU, EOC, CRE and Department for Employment and Education may also provide some guidance.
There must be a course of conduct. Harassment must have occurred on at least two occasions (although a civil claim may succeed where there has only been one incident, if there are reasonable grounds to believe that the harassment may occur again). The harassment need not be the same on each occasion.
What protection is given?
The Act gives powers to both the CRIMINAL and CIVIL COURTS.
The Act creates two criminal offences:-
1. Harassment - It is an offence to pursue a course of conduct which amounts to the harassment of another and the harasser knows or ought to know his conduct amounts to harassment.
The offence is arrestable and is dealt with in the Magistrates Court. If convicted a person can be sentenced to up to 6 months imprisonment or fined up to £5,000 or both.
2. Causing fear of violence - this is a more serious offence. The offence is committed if a person's course of conduct causes another person to fear, on at least two occasions, that violence will be used against him/her.
This offence can be tried at the Crown Court. The maximum sentence is 5 years imprisonment, unlimited fine or both.
It is also open to the Court, when sentencing a person for either offence, to make a Restraining Order to protect the victim (or any other person) from further harassment or fear of violence.
This is in addition to any sentence and will specify the conduct which is prohibited. The Order can apply while the person serves a prison sentence or while he or she is subject to a Probation Order or doing community service. If the Defendant does anything which is prohibited under a Restraining Order it is a further criminal offence which carries a sentence up to 5 years and/or an unlimited fine.
A person who is or may be the victim of a course of conduct amounting to harassment can bring a civil action. This claim will be heard in the County Court or the High Court. The Court can award damages including damages for anxiety and any resulting financial loss.
The victim or potential victim can also ask the Court to grant an injunction restraining the person from any conduct which amounts to harassment. If the person does anything which is prohibited by that injunction, he or she can be sentenced to imprisonment for contempt of Court.
If the person without reasonable excuse does anything which is prohibited by the injunction it is a criminal offence. The Police have powers to arrest the person. The person will then be tried in the Criminal Court with a penalty of up to 5 years imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine.
It is a defence to show that the person's course of conduct was done for the prevention or detection of crime (e.g. police), was authorised by statute (e.g. bailiff), or it was reasonable for purposes of protecting him/herself or another person or property.
This Guide is not a definitive statement of the law. It is an introduction to an extremely complex subject and should therefore not be relied upon in legal proceedings. Should any problems arise concerning the law in this area you should consult your union