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Commissioner’s Response to the Home Office Consultation – Introducing a Stalking Protection Order

30th January 2016

The PCC for Northumbria Police, Vera Baird QC, has consulted with local service providers and service users to inform her responses to the following ten questions.

  1. Are there orders or injunctions already available that could be used to better effect to address stalking? Do such measures provide sufficient protection to victims of stalking and in particular victims of ‘stranger stalking’ in advance of a prosecution, or if a prosecution is not yet possible? Do you have experience of the use of currently available civil measures in this way?

NO – Our consultees were not able to identify any orders or injunctions that are currently available and which could be used to better effect to protect victims of stalking in general or victims of stranger stalking in particular.

Indeed, the distinction made in the consultation between domestic and stranger stalking was itself seen as problematic and to create a binary approach that focuses upon the existence/non-existence of a prior relationship between victim and offender that fails to capture a variety of situations where, for example:

  • A person is being stalked by a current or former work colleague;
  • A person is being stalked by someone they slept with on a ‘one-night stand’;
  • A person is being stalked after engaging in ‘cottaging’ or another sexual liaison with one or more unknown person, or;

Such a distinction is also seen to ignore the wider research which indicates that:

  1. 50-70% of stalking still takes place in the context of a coercive and controlling relationship that the victim is trying to end;
  2. Such post-separation stalking is more likely to result in a serious/fatal injury than other forms of ‘stranger stalking’;
  3. Members of the public (i.e. jurors) and police officers (alongside other CJ professionals) often believe the reverse to be true and thereby misjudge/under-estimate the seriousness of stalking in a domestic context

It should also be noted that the current provisions for stalking in a domestic context, including the use of time-limited DVPNs and DVPO’s, are seen as insufficient to address this potentially fatal behaviour.

  1. What do you see as the restrictions or deficiencies in the use of the currently available measures?

The restrictions/deficiencies associated with the use of currently available measures have been extensively addressed by Paladin in their briefing document ‘Paladin Briefing for The Home Office Consultation on Orders for Stalkers’ produced earlier this year and we would respectfully draw the attention of others to this document/

  1. What do you see as the additional features a new Stalking Protection Order might have in order to enhance the range of options available to protect victims?

The length of the proposed Stalking Protection Order (SPO) was seen to be a key consideration and central to its ability to disrupt the behaviour of the offender.  Consultees agreed that, to operate effectively, an SPO needed to be able to both prohibit/restrict certain behaviours (e.g. sending gifts, hacking emails, using friends to pass on messages etc.) whilst positively requiring others and believed that an order that was less than 12 months in duration would be ineffective in this regard.

Indeed the preferred length for the proposed order was generally longer (at 24 months) and was seen to ideally include a number of positive obligations including:

  • To undergo a psychological assessment (where mental ill health is claimed/believed to be a contributory factor)
  • To attend treatment and/or a structured educational programme (see below)
  • To submit to electronic tagging

In the Northumbria Police area, the Police Innovation Fund has been used to purchase a number of offender-worn tags which, when coupled with a device carried by the victim, can be used to notify the police, victim and offender when the latter has come within a certain distance of the victim’s current location.  A voluntary measure to which both parties must agree, such devices can help to overcome the central weakness of many orders/injunctions; their reliance on the victim to report when the offender has breached its provisions and to prove that the breach has occurred.

  1. What restrictions should it be possible to place on a perpetrator to help protect victims through a civil order (new or existing)?

Consultees emphasised the need for both physical restrictions on the movements of the offender and for social media restrictions. In this context, one group of consultees suggested that the restrictions/prohibitions included in the proposed SPO could mimic those that are now available to control offenders who have been made the subject of a Sexual Offences Prevention Order (SOPO) or a Sexual Risk Order (SRO);  including restrictions or prohibitions on:

  • Premises, residency or vehicular use – e.g. without reasonable cause, the offender must not enter or remain in a building knowing the named person to be present
  • Computer use – e.g. accessing the internet by computer or any other means, in order to make contact with or monitor the internet activity of the victim
  • Recording, Images or Photographs – e.g. taking, making or possessing any photograph, image or pseudo-image of the named person without the express permission of the named person
  • Contact and communication – e.g. the offender must not approach, communicate or attempt to communicate directly or indirectly with the named person, whether in person, by telecommunication, computer or other means whatsoever
  • Loitering – e.g. without reasonable cause, the offender must not loiter in any place within 20 metres of the named person or within 20 metres of any premises or public place where the named person would ordinarily be expected to be present – including schools, parks, leisure facilities and workplace.
  • Employment – undertaking any activity or employment whether paid or otherwise that is likely to bring the offender in contact with the named person
  1. What positive requirements, if any, could be placed on a perpetrator to help break the fixated nature of their offending at an early stage that could be included in a Stalking Protection Order?

Consultees agreed that, to operate effectively, the proposed SPO needed to be able to both prohibit/restrict certain behaviours whilst positively requiring others such as:

  • Attendance at mental health assessments (where poor mental health was believed/claimed to be a contributory factor);
  • Adherence on a programme of MH intervention (where this is the recommendation of the above MH assessment), and/or;
  • Attendance on an educational programme designed to address underlying beliefs and associated behaviours.

With regard to the latter, it was felt that an existing DA Perpetrator Programme might be sufficient for some stalking offenders (particularly those engaged in pursuing a former partner post-separation) although such programmes can carry the risk of reinforcing the perpetrator’s desire for/belief in an ongoing relationship with the victim.

Where such a risk exists, and for other stalking offenders, the development of a specialist early intervention programme was advocated.  One suggestion was for a programme that could be developed along similar lines to the ‘speed schools’ available to motoring offenders.  In other words, consultees described a programme that would be of limited duration but offer an opportunity to intervene, to raise offender awareness/victim empathy and to encourage reflection.  Paid for by the offender and offered as an alternative to a criminal prosecution, this early intervention programme would offer only ‘one chance to change’ with no second chance for a second offence.

NB Such a programme would not be suitable for serial stalkers/repeat offenders where the research suggests that group work programmes can (like group-work programmes for sex offenders) result in contact with others that is mutually reinforcing rather than challenging.

  1. If we were to introduce a Stalking Protection Order, what should the penalty be for breaching such an order: should it be punishable as a contempt of court and/or as a criminal offence?

Consultees felt that the breach of a SPO should be a criminal offence, with meaningful sanctions attached including stringent monitoring requirements.

Indeed, the introduction of a national register of stalkers, as advocated by Paladin, was specifically raised by one group of consultees as a measure that could be used either as a part of the proposed SPO or as a penalty for its breach.

Such a register would require that the offender notify the police when they move to a different area of the country, change their name or form a new relationship.   Such requirements were seen to offer an opportunity to not only restrict the behaviour of offenders but also to increase public awareness, to enhance the profile of stalking in offender management services, and to create a demand for further disruption-focussed interventions.  

  1. Do you think any existing civil order in another area [e.g. FM, FGM, DA, Sex Offenders etc.] would be a useful model for any Stalking Protection Order?

For those who were fully conversant with the civil orders available in other areas, those in place for sex offenders such as the Sexual Offences Prevention Orders and the Sexual Risk Orders introduced by the Anti-Social behaviour, Crime & Policing Act 2014 were noted as a possible way forward, although they were noted to be entirely prohibitive in focus .

Available on conviction (SOROs) or without a conviction but where there is reasonable cause to believe an order is necessary for protecting the public, or any particular members of the public, from sexual harm from the defendant (SROs) these orders can:

  1. Be used to prohibit/restrict the behaviour of the offender in multiple ways (described earlier)
  2. Be put in place for a fixed period of not less than 2 years and until further notice
  3. Be used to enforce different time periods for different prohibitions
  4. Result in a fine and/or imprisonment for the breach of any requirement.

A similar approach could be adopted for cases where a stalking conviction has occurred or where the defendant is shown to be acting in such a way that there is reasonable cause to believe that an order is necessary to protect a particular member of the public from the  psychological and/or physical harm  that stalking can involve.

  1. Should any new order specifically protect victims of harassment as well as of stalking?

YES – given the current lack of (public and professional) understanding regarding the differences between stalking and harassment, the current lack of charging in stalking cases and the apparent tendency for stalking cases to be charged as harassment cases, consultees felt that the new order should protect victims of both harassment and stalking

  1. What are the main challenges in identifying cases of stalking at an early stage (as opposed to harassment)?

The emphasis on early identification and on using the proposed SPO to ‘…deter perpetrators before reaching the stage where a charge can or should be brought’ was seen as problematic by a number of consultees who were aware that the wider research indicates that:

  • A victim will generally experience numerous incidents of stalking behaviour before overcoming their fears and approaching the police for help;
  • A victim will often feel ambivalent about labelling the behaviour they have experienced as stalking;
  • A victim will often begin by reporting a single incident which they know to have taken place within a wider context of other, equally problematic behaviours but which they do not describe or are not asked to describe by the attending officer
  • The police/prosecutors tend to adopt an ‘incidentalist’ approach in which a single incident that can be identified as criminal conduct (e.g. a common assault) is pursued without reference to the wider body of behaviour that amounts to the more serious (and potentially fatal) offence of stalking

In other words, consultees were aware that until such time as victims are able/willing to report stalking behaviour as soon it begins, every case of stalking that is reported to the police is likely to meet the threshold for a prosecution and that recognising this to be the case means that responding officers must be trained to:

  1. Understand the nature of stalking behaviour;
  2. Recognise the various signs of such behaviour;
  3. Capture this behaviour in rigorous and thorough statement-taking, and;
  4. Look for the wide-ranging evidence sources that could be used to support a prosecution.

Only in this context, will the proposed SPO’s be used as it really should be used; to support rather than substitute for criminal prosecution.

10.   What more could be done to support the effective gathering of evidence to bring stalking charges?

A number of issues were raised under this heading, including:

  • Increased public awareness of stalking and its potential seriousness
  • Further guidance on such as cyber-stalking for potential victims many of whom may be unaware of the extent to which their lives are being monitored by an offender.

For a victim to be effectively supported, however, there was also an identified need to ensure effective multi-agency liaison between local police officers and external support services.  In this context, consultees favoured the development of designated officers who:

  • Have been trained to understand the nature of stalking
  • Are able to act as a named officer for the victim, and;
  • Have the time/skills needed to collect the evidence required for an effective prosecution.

Whether these officers should be located within a specialist unit (such as those established for the protection of vulnerable people) or within neighbourhood police teams (like the SOLO officers trained to meet the needs of rape and sexual assault victims) was seen to be worthy of further consideration, but regardless of their location their effectiveness was also seen to be dependent, at least in part, on the availability of specialist support services and on effective joint working with these services.

In this context, one group of consultees suggested that a network of ‘trusted partners’ could be developed involving partner services that were known to be experienced/trained in the support of stalking victims and who could be trusted to refer a victim for an SPO on the professional judgement of the individual staff member involved with the victim. Whilst such a development could build on the existing goodwill and effective m-a practice that has been built between police services and local domestic abuse agencies, it is important to note that further funding may be needed to enhance the capacity of local domestic abuse services and to develop the specialist support needed by those who are ineligible or unwilling to approach the domestic abuse sector.