Electronic shutters on mended windows. Checking the rear view mirror, constantly. Ransacking your own house for microphones. Loss of jobs, partners, safety and assurance in your own sanity. Why are victims of stalking allowed to be subjected to this, some for decades? Why is such a comprehensive violation of somebody’s life so difficult to prosecute, and so often mishandled by the authorities meant to protect these people?
Harassment, the act of systematically or continuously perpetuating unwanted actions or contact, was only deemed illegal in 1997; any process of offending, distressing and intimidating another person was legal a mere 20 years ago. This was a baby step in the right direction, for sure, but it is obvious that this would do little to recognise the extent to which a person’s life is dominated by another’s obsession when experiencing stalking.
Stunningly, it was only in 2012 that a law against stalking was introduced. Even more bleakly, before these long-awaited offerings from the criminal justice system, victims could only rely on civil orders dispensed by solicitors to attempt to keep their stalker away.
Most frighteningly of all, despite these powers being steadily introduced, victims are still evidently left vulnerable and unsupported. Research quoted by the Suzy Lamplugh Trust claims that in 2015/16, only 12.7% of reported stalking cases reached conviction. This, alongside the women vocalising their disappointment in their treatment by the police, paints a disturbing picture of the structural negligence women face in seeking justice for violations of their rights.
An exemplary case: Lily Allen’s seven-year hounding, much reported in early 2016. Allen’s stalker, Alex Gray, was left pretty much undisturbed by police action until he broke into her flat, fortified with metal shutters and locks. Allen believes Gray was concealing a knife in his jacket and was only halted in his course of action by a friend Allen had staying over in the flat. After the incident, Gray was charged with burglary, having returned Allen’s presumed stolen handbag, burned and cut up on the bonnet of her car.
A joint HM Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate and HM Inspectorate of Constabulary investigation illustrates numerically the, at best, underwhelming reactions of the police to reports of stalking. It was revealed that 60% of a sample of 112 stalking cases showed no evidence of a risk management plan for the victims.
All too often, incidences are treated in isolation, rather than as part of a pattern of intimidation, highlighting the structural and societal expectations of victims to live with violations of not only their direct safety but also their mostly ignored entitlement to a good quality of life. Instances must be strung together to truly understand what constitutes the lives these women are being forced to live, or we risk misrepresenting what Lily Allen called a ‘life-altering crime’ as mere criminal damage to private property.
It must also be acknowledged that stalking is predominantly committed by men against women, in order that we begin to understand why the rights of the offenders are protected as they are.
With this in mind, the upkeep of the the usually male offender’s rights smacks of prioritisation of offender above victim. Take Tracey Morgan’s case, in which she was repeatedly criticised for her behaviour, discovering it was her ‘nervousness in the witness box’ which allowed her stalker to be released. Suddenly, it becomes apparent that evidence of a breach of a woman’s legally-confounded consent is not enough to require action.
Additionally, Morgan’s stalker repeatedly achieved bail when she was assured he would be in prison and she continued to receive letters and silent phone calls from prison, much like the more recent sufferings of BBC Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis. Maitlis continued to receive letters from her stalker of two decades, despite a court order against this. She also received an apology from the Ministry of Justice for the mistake. For the countless other women of no considerable position living the same nightmare, how much damage can this apology repair for them?
The limited support that is available to women is by no means adequately equipped to deal with the nuances of this kind of crime. At best, the 40-50% of cases in which the stalkers are ex-partners can access domestic violence services. So, where does this leave those considered ‘non-ex-intimate’ victims? By referring women who are dealing with ex-partners to domestic services, and leaving those who do not fit this model without support, we insinuate that this is a private matter, rather than a criminal overstepping of societal boundaries and yet again force the victims to shoulder the burden entirely on their own.
Admittedly, there have been some instances of long overdue progress. December 2017 saw Amber Rudd announce the creation of a stalking protection order which would allow courts to impose restrictions on alleged perpetrators at an earlier stage, minimising the suffering of victims whilst police investigate complaints.
However, is such an initiative really enough? Considering the outcomes of most cases brought to court, the answer appears to be no. Whilst an announcement in January 2017 stated that sentences for stalking offences would double from 5 to 10 years, the Ministry of Justice recognised that even those who repeatedly breach their restraining order often escape with mere fines or non-custodial sentences, rather than serving any time in prison. To capitalise on this pessimistic probability, stalking cases at present are not included in the unduly lenient appeals process.
The message of the criminal courts seems clear: the sacrifice of a victim’s quality of life is a price they are willing to pay.