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How can we improve access to justice for victims/survivors of stalking?

Last month, the Scottish Crime and Justice Survey 2017-2018 released its results and it found that women aged 16-24 are the most affected by stalking and harassment (27%). It also mentioned that only 1 in 10 respondents reported these incidents to the police.

It is clear that women are disproportionately affected by stalking and harassment. And these numbers reflect only the cases where there have been reports. To get a fuller picture, we would need to consider the cases of women who have been stalked but have decided not to report to the police.

The Suzy Lamplugh Trust, a UK charity working on personal safety, also found that 1 in 5 women experience stalking and its National Stalking Helpline reports that 45% of callers have been stalked by an ex-partner.

For almost a decade, there has been a specific protection for victims/survivors of stalking. So, why does reporting to the police remain low? In this blog we explore stalking as a crime in Scotland and we consider some of the barriers that need to be removed to improve access to justice for victim/survivors.

Stalking as a criminal offense

In Scotland, stalking has been a criminal offense since 2010 and it’s defined as a ‘course of conduct’ (that is, 2 or more incidents) that causes a person to feel fear and alarm.

Stalking can be very subtle and may not always be obvious as criminal behaviour. Behaviours can become a criminal offence of stalking if they happen more than once and the incidents are intended to make a person feel afraid or alarmed or the perpetrator should have known they would cause these reactions.

For example, a text message that says ‘your hair looks nice today’ might seem trivial, but it could easily make someone feel afraid, if it is intended to let them know that they are being watched. If this happens on two or more occasions and it causes fear and alarm, then it is a criminal offence.

Behaviours that may qualify as stalking

There is a whole range of behaviours that can qualify as stalking. Some of the most common examples are:

  • Sending unwanted emails or text messages
  • Cyberbullying or monitoring on social media
  • Following to work or school
  • Verbal abuse
  • Breaking into a person’s home
  • Unwanted phone calls
  • Befriending family or colleagues, among many others.

In addition to fear and alarm, it’s important to keep in mind that stalking causes victims to feel isolated and can even force them to make lifestyle changes (like modifying their usual route home or their means of transportation, changing their phone numbers and replacing house locks, etc).

If you or someone you know is being affected by stalking, the organisations at the end of this blog can provide a safe place to talk and access support.

Barriers to reporting stalking to the police

At the Scottish Women’s Rights Centre, we have worked with women who have been stalked through our helpline and legal surgeries. We have found that there are various reasons why some of the victims/survivors don’t report to the police and they relate to a general lack of awareness about stalking and the legal definition in Scotland:

Victim/survivors are not aware of their rights. In Scotland, stalking is a crime on its own. In some cases, women might experience stalking alongside other crimes like domestic abuse, so-called “honour-based” violence and sexual violence. It’s important for people to be aware that there are specific legal protections in relation to stalking.

It can be difficult to prove these types of crimes. When reporting stalking, victims/survivors need to demonstrate there is a ‘course of conduct’ which made them feel fear and alarm. However, it can be challenging to prove that there have been two or more incidents of stalking and the feelings they experienced as a consequence.

If a victim/survivor feels they may not be believed. If they have told someone about their experiences —such as family, friends and colleagues, the police and Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (the prosecution service in Scotland), social work or health services— and the response has been poor, they may decide not to report the incidents, sometimes waiting until they have escalated to a risk of immediate harm. When looked at individually, incidents might seem trivial, which is why agencies need to be able to recognise stalking when it’s happening and consider the risks that it poses to the victim/survivor.

Improving access to justice for victims/survivors of stalking

Organisations, public services and society in general can take different steps to help victims of stalking to feel confident about reporting the situation to the police:

  • Believe survivors of stalking. Stalking can make victims feel isolated and misunderstood, so we need to foster a culture that hears and believes them.
  • Emphasise that stalking is a crime. We need to ensure that people know that stalking is an unacceptable behaviour and that stalkers will be punished by the law.
  • Increase awareness about stalking. It is important to point out that a stalker can be any person and that there are many behaviours that can be considered stalking, even if they seem harmless.
  • Clarify the steps that can be taken before reporting to the police. Victims need to know that they should keep a record of the incidents, where possible, and they should call the police if they feel their life is at risk.
  • Making society aware about how harmful and devastating stalking can be. Stalking has unfortunately been normalised in our society and it can go unnoticed.
  • Organisations and the police must continue to work together. These collaborations help to improve the response to stalking and the protection for victims/survivors.

What can I do if I’ve been stalked?

Keep a record of the incidents

If you have experienced stalking, you should try to keep a record of the incidents that mention what happened, dates and times, the location, and how the incident made you feel.

Our Centre recently released FollowItApp – an incident recording mobile app that assists women who have experienced stalking by allowing them to log stalking incidents. You can record incidents even if you don’t intend to report to the police. If you’d like access to FollowItApp, please contact us.

Report to the police

To report, you can visit your local police station or fill out this online form. If you are in immediate danger, contact the police on 999.

If you are thinking of reporting stalking to the police, you can read our legal guide which has information about your rights.

Speak to our solicitors

You can speak directly to our solicitors and ask any questions about your case and about taking legal action.

  • Helpline: 08088 010 789 (open every Tuesday 6-9pm, Wednesday 1.30-4.30pm, and Friday 10am-1pm).
  • Legal surgeries in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Lanarkshire and Forth Valley (by appointment). For details on how to book an appointment, click here.

Support

If you or someone you know has experienced stalking or harassment, the following organisations can provide advocacy and emotional support:

Rape Crisis Scotland

National Helpline: 08088 01 03 02 (daily, 6pm – midnight)

Scottish Women’s Aid

Domestic abuse and forced marriage helpline: 0800 027 1234

Victims Support Scotland

Helpline: 0800 160 1985 (Monday to Friday, 8am-8pm)

Suzy Lamplugh Trust

National Stalking Helpline: 0808 802 0300

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