The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 (PHA) was introduced to target stalking. For the most part, Parliament had strangers in mind, whether physically following a victim and/or persistently giving them unwanted attention. As is often the way, enforcement of the Act evolved from those early intentions. Now, the vast majority of prosecutions involve people who know each other, one of them reporting that they are the victim of a course of conduct which amounts to harassment by the other, and which that person knew or ought to have known caused them harassment alarm or distress. The basic offence, section 2 of PHA, is a summary-only offence (meaning it can only be tried in the Magistrates’ Court) but the more serious offences of harassment putting people in fear of violence (section s4 of PHA), or stalking involving fear of violence or serious alarm or distress (section 4A of PHA), can be tried in the Crown Court and both incur up to five years imprisonment.
Following reports about the seven year ordeal suffered by Lily Allen, stalking is back in the mainstream media. Most people will be familiar with the term ‘stalking’. Unfortunately, familiarity can breed contempt: many people, including, significantly, many Police Officers, still either fundamentally misunderstand what stalking is, or fail to appreciate how serious a problem it presents for our society. As a result, many victims receive poor advice and little, if any, protection.
Maria Miller, the Culture Secretary, and Senior Labour MP Yvette Cooper have both called for a review of the law governing online harassment, stalking and abuse to prevent inconsistent enforcement and to encourage those affected to report the crime.
On 29 October 2015 former footballer Paul Gascoigne pleaded guilty to harassment of his former partner, Amanda Thomas, contrary to section 2 of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. Mr Gascoigne sent abusive messages and threats through a series of tweets, phone calls and text messages alongside being verbally aggressive at her place of work.
In Crawford v Jenkins  EWCA Civ 1035, the Claimant had sued the Defendant in false imprisonment and harassment on the basis of allegedly malicious statements made to the Police which had resulted in his arrest and detention. The course of conduct said to amount to harassment consisted of two text messages sent to him by the Defendant which complained of his actions, and the Defendant’s subsequent statements to the Police. At first instance, Her Honour Judge Baucher ruled that the Defendant was immune from suit (both in false imprisonment and harassment) owing to the ‘witness immunity’ rule in Westcott v Westcott  EWCA Civ 818. Having disregarded the statements to the Police, the Judge struck out the remainder of the harassment claim (the two text messages) on the basis that the conduct was reasonable. The Claimant appealed.
The supreme Court in Hayes v Willoughby, have considered the scope of the defence under s.1(3)(a) of the Protection of Harassment Act 1997. Under that provision, a person cannot be found liable for a course of conduct that amounts to harassment if their conduct was pursued for the purpose of preventing or detecting crime.
On 25 November 2012, section 111 of the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 came into force. This creates two specific offences: ‘stalking’, and ‘stalking involving fear of violence or serious alarm or distress’. The provision has inserted the offences into the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. The former offence carries a maximum prison sentence of six months, the latter of five years.
In R (Waxman) -v- CPs, QBD (Admin) (2 February 2012), Moore-Bick LJ considered the state’s responsibility to prosecute alleged criminal offences, an individual’s access to the civil courts and the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.
Mr Justice Tugendhat has handed down judgment in the claim brought by Brett Wilson LLP on behalf of the Law society, Hine solicitors and Kevin McGrath against Rick Kordowski, the operator/publisher of solicitors from Hell. Representative proceedings were brought by the Claimants under CPR 19.6 on behalf of those listed on the website and those at serious risk of being listed on the website. Three applications were heard at a hearing before the High Court on 15 November 2011. Firstly, an application for an interim injunction prohibiting the Defendant from publishing www.solicitorsfromhell.co.uk (the Website) or a similar/similarly named website; secondly, an application for a default judgment/permanent injunction (which superseded the first application) and thirdly, an application for the continuation of an injunction granted on 2 November 2011 preventing the Defendant from transferring data relating to the Website. Following the hearing Tugendhat J ordered the immediate removal of the Website in its entirety and that the injunction of 2 November 2011 continue. Further orders were made on 7 December 2012, inter alia, prohibiting the Defendant from publishing or establishing (whether by himself, his servants, his agents or otherwise) a similarly named website or a website inviting member of the public to post negative comments about individuals and/or organisations involved in the legal profession, where as a result such individuals are harassed (within the meaning of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 (PHA)) or have their personal data unlawfully or unfairly processed in breach of the Data Protection Act (DPA). The following is a summary of the judgment (The Law society & Ors v Kordowski  EWHC 3185 (QB) (07 December 2011)) prepared by Brett Wilson LLP. The full 70 page judgment can be found on the Bailii website.