It can have a devastating impact on their lives, causing panic, depression and loneliness. In the past it has been widely regarded as a celebrity problem – stars such as Madonna, Halle Berry and Jennifer Aniston have all been victims of stalkers – but now stalking is to be made a specific criminal offence in the UK.
Speaking yesterday, David Cameron promised new protection for the victims of what he called an “abhorrent” crime. The Prime Minister, who met stalking victims at a Downing Street reception to mark International Women’s Day, said the Government was determined to ensure “justice is done.”
The move comes after a parliamentary inquiry called for a new offence in England and Wales to be brought in immediately to stop harassment and intimidation turning to murder, following a campaign by the charity Protection Against Stalking and the probation union Napo.
But experts have warned that a new law alone won’t be enough to protect victims and that “fundamental reform” of the system is needed.
Harry Fletcher, Napo’s assistant general secretary, says: “It is essential that any new legislation ensures that victims are properly protected and perpetrators receive adequate sentences and attend programmes that combat their obsessive behaviour.”
It is estimated that about 120,000 victims, mostly women, are stalked each year. Some 53,000 are recorded as crimes but only one in 50 of these lead to an offender going to prison.
Campaigners say that just 20 stalkers a year are jailed for longer than 12 months for putting a victim in fear of violence, while some are behind bars for a matter of days and others are sentenced to community orders and “inappropriate” domestic violence courses.
The calls for reform came as a man who stalked his ex-girlfriend on Facebook before stabbing her to death was jailed for life with a minimum term of 21 years after being found guilty of murder.
Clifford Mills, 49, attacked Lorna Smith after inviting her to his south London flat in February last year. He denied murder, claiming he was suffering mental abnormality at the time, but an Old Bailey jury took less than two hours to find him guilty last month.
Laura Richards, a psychologist who was an adviser to the parliamentary inquiry, welcomes the Government move saying victims have been repeatedly let down by criminal justice agencies in a scandal that cannot continue.
“One of the problems is that a lot of people see it as being just like harassment, an argument over a hedgerow or a disagreement between business partners. But we’re dealing with a serious fixation, it’s about the hunter and the hunted and until now victims have had to keep going back to the police and the justice system to try and get something done about it,” she said.
It’s a problem that has been exacerbated by the internet which allows stalkers to hide behind a veil of anonymity. But although the popular image of a stalker is that of a stranger, most female victims actually know the person stalking them.
“It’s absolutely terrifying,” says Richards. “People might think if there’s no physical abuse then there isn’t a risk, but there is a lot of psychological fear and damage that not only affects the victim but also their families and children – stalking steals lives.”
Kristiana Wrixon, helpline manager of the National Stalkers Helpline, says making it a criminal offence is just part of the solution. “Hopefully this means more victims will receive justice but it’s not just a legislative problem. We need to have better training for the prosecutors, judges, probation teams and police officers. There also needs to be better rehabilitation and treatment for perpetrators and proper support for victims.”
The 1997 Protection from Harassment Act was supposed to help deal with the problem of stalking but Wrixon says it didn’t go far enough.
“Campaigners hoped that it would be strong enough, but over the years it became clear that it doesn’t have the teeth to get to grips with the problem.
“We are where domestic violence was 30 or 40 years ago in terms of people’s understanding and acceptance of the problem and there needs to be greater awareness of what stalking means. When someone says they are being stalked we need the same reaction as if they were saying, ‘my partner’s hitting me’.”