Crime and Criminal Justice Research Programme
Stalking and Harassment in Scotland
The Robert Gordon University
Simon Anderson and Lorraine Murray
NFO System Three Social Research
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In Scotland, as elsewhere, recent years have seen extensive political, media and academic debate around the issue of stalking and harassment and, in particular, around how such cases should be dealt with by the criminal justice system. In October 1999, the Justice Minister, the Right Honourable Jim Wallace QC, announced that the laws that tackle stalking in Scotland were to be reviewed to determine whether new legislation was required. This research was commissioned to inform that review and, in particular, to provide information about the nature and extent of the problem in Scotland, public perceptions and awareness of the issue and practitioners' views of how such cases are currently dealt with by the criminal justice system.
- In terms of prevalence, the scale of the problem in Scotland appears similar to that in other jurisdictions, especially England and Wales and the USA - with women and younger women, in particular, most likely to be victims.
- IAlthough there is a high level of awareness of the term 'stalking' among the Scottish public, it is often understood in terms of high profile cases involving celebrity victims.
- The research suggests, by contrast, that stalking and harassing is overwhelmingly associated with ex-intimate partners. Moreover, such offenders are very often men who have been in a violent and abusive relationship with the victim and who begin their campaigns of stalking and harassment when their partner ends the relationship
- The research also suggests that these men do not target only one victim; reports of consecutive victims and serial stalking were common
- Experiences of dealing with this type of behaviour, whether as a victim or practitioner, all point to control as the central feature of the motivation for stalking and harassing behaviour. This is also evident in the many forms of behaviour used by offenders to harass their victims, which typically involve ensuring the victim knows the offender is highly aware of their movements
- There was relatively little support - from either practitioners or victims - for new legislation. Rather, most interviewees pointed to aspects of current practice that could be improved - e.g. action to improve the police response in cases of repeat victimisation or to raise awareness among officers of the options available in 'course of conduct' cases, ; attaching the power of arrest to non-harassment orders; and prosecuting offenders more stringently.
- Support for victims throughout the process was seen as crucial by most victims and many practitioners. Police Domestic Abuse Liaison Officers (DALOs) were widely viewed as an excellent source of support, both for victims and for police officers, and where social work counsellors worked together with DALOs, these were also viewed very positively.
In Scotland, as elsewhere, recent years have seen extensive political, media and academic debate around the issue of stalking and harassment and, in particular, around how such cases should be dealt with by the criminal justice system.
In October 1999, the Justice Minister, the Right Honourable Jim Wallace QC, announced that the laws that tackle stalking in Scotland were to be reviewed to determine whether new legislation was required. Following a public consultation exercise, it was decided to commission research to obtain information on the nature and extent of the problem, public awareness of the issue and practitioner perceptions of possible changes to the law.
The research had four main components: a review of existing literature and statistics relating to the prevalence and characteristics of stalking, its impact and the legislative responses to it in different jurisdictions; a nationally-representative survey of the adult Scottish population (n=1024), carried out in respondents' homes by interviewers using Computer Aided Personal Interviewing (CAPI); a series of qualitative interviews with victims of stalking; and a series of qualitative interviews with practitioners within (or linked to) the criminal justice system.
The issue of stalking and harassment is a relatively recent one - at least in terms of political, media and legislative responses - dating back no more than 15-20 years. But despite the explosion of interest in the issue, knowledge and understanding is still partial. This is compounded, of course, by a lack of clarity about how the behaviour should be defined. That said, a number of emerging themes are clear.
There is on-going debate about whether the behaviour is best dealt with through the creation of a specific statutory offence of stalking or through existing provisions within a jurisdiction's criminal law.
Depending on the definitions and methods used, research studies suggest a wide range of prevalence estimates. It is clear, however, that women and younger women in particular are the most likely victims and that, even if only a relatively small minority are likely to become victims in any given year, those who do tend to experience severe and lasting effects.
Across all jurisdictions studied, the majority of cases appear to involve 'former intimates' and there seem to be clear links between stalking and domestic abuse.
Although a variety of typologies of offenders have been proposed, these tend to be based on limited research evidence. Moreover, studies suggest that one should perhaps expect heterogeneity more than homogeneity in offenders' characteristics, motivations and modus operandi.
Survey of the general public
Using a questionnaire largely based on that developed as part of the British Crime Survey in England & Wales, the study used social survey techniques to obtain estimates of the extent of behaviours that might be characterised as stalking among the Scottish population. The reasons for using the BCS questionnaire were twofold: first to minimise costs by using a validated instrument; second, to obtain broadly comparable data for Scotland. The survey was based on a nationally-representative sample of the adult Scottish population (n=1024).
Awareness of the term 'stalking' used to describe a form of harassment was very high among almost all those interviewed - 95% for women and 92% for men - but it tends to be understood quite narrowly and to be strongly associated with particular types of behaviours, victims and offenders. Thus images of deranged stalkers and celebrity victims are much more common than the more mundane 'domestic' cases that appear to account for the vast majority of cases.
In order to capture as many relevant incidents as possible, respondents were not asked directly whether they had experienced 'stalking' but about their experience of 'persistent and unwanted attention' and given examples of the types of behaviour that might have been involved. Lifetime experience (at some point since the age of 16) of 'persistent and unwanted attention' is relatively common - overall, some 17% of women and 7% of men said they had experienced it at some stage, though not all would consider themselves to have been the victims of stalking. These figures are broadly consistent with those obtained by the BCS in England & Wales. Not surprisingly, prevalence of such behaviours in the last year is much lower than the 'lifetime' figures - nevertheless 5% of women and 2% of men indicate that they have recent experience of 'persistent and unwanted attention'.
If we look at lifetime experience of behaviour that the victim considered was stalking, we find prevalence rates of 4% for men and 10% for women. Within the past year, the respective figures are 1% and 3%.
Interestingly, lifetime experiences of both persistent and unwanted attention' and victim-defined 'stalking' are higher among younger age groups. This suggests either a real change in the prevalence of such behaviours over time - or simply differences in ability to recall or likelihood to see oneself as a victim.
In line with research carried out elsewhere, the survey suggests that most victims experience a wide range of different forms of abusive or threatening behaviours. Although the most common of these do not involve violence, use of actual physical force or threat of force was nevertheless mentioned by between a third and a half of all victims.
The qualitative interviews with victims (n=27) reinforced the view that, for the most part, stalking can be seen as directly linked to domestic abuse. This is true in that the majority of offenders are former intimate partners. It is also true in that the patterns of abusive behaviour that manifest as stalking once a relationship has ended are almost always already present in more familiar forms of domestic abuse during the course of the relationship itself.
Victims typically reported a range of different types of stalking behaviours, often spread over months or even years. The critical point to appreciate here is not necessarily the character of the individual behaviours but the compounding effects of experiencing them in combination that results in serious and debilitating effects on victims.
Almost all of the victims interviewed had been forced to make significant changes to their lives, with consequences for their home life, leisure activities, work and families. Some had experienced very severe disruptions, such as losing or changing of jobs and moving home, as a direct consequence of their victimisation.
In addition to these practical consequences, many victims reported deterioration in physical health and serious psychological impacts. These problems seem to be of an enduring nature, and do not simply disappear once the victimisation appears to have stopped, or at least been postponed.
In those cases in which the harassment had ceased, this was not generally as a result of any intervention by the police or criminal justice system but because something else had happened to disrupt the dynamic of the victimisation. Typically, the stalking ceased once the offender began a new relationship, or the victim ended a relationship which had been helped to fuel the offender's behaviour. It is striking, however, how few of the victims considered that the stalking was ever effectively over, since almost all were conscious of the possibility of 'things starting up again'.
Although stalking is typically portrayed as a direct interaction between a single victim and a single offender, the research challenges this in a number of ways. First, in several cases, it was clear that the offender had behaved in similar ways towards a number of other people - often concurrently. Second, the focus of their behaviours was often extended to encompass family or close friends of the principal victim. Third, offenders often used their own family or friends (wittingly or unwittingly) to extend their campaign of harassment.
Victims' assessments of their contact with the police were varied. The main sources of dissatisfaction were: the need to recount 'the whole story' each time a new incident occurred; perceived inaction on the part of the police; and a tendency for police to dismiss incidents as 'only domestic'. Where there had been contact with a Domestic Abuse Liaison Officer, perceptions of the police were almost always much more positive - as they were among victims who had found a 'champion' who took an active interest in their case.
Practitioners interviewed (n=28) had a generally shared understanding of what stalking and harassment typically involves, and there was consensus that the issue arose mainly in the context of domestic abuse, in particular when abusive relationships were ended and the male ex-partner did not accept their ex-partner's right to do this.
Evidential issues featured prominently in the interviews with practitioners, all of whom stressed the difficulty of proving both that behaviours had occurred and that they had been criminal in intent.
There was little support among practitioners for a statutory offence, but there were calls for improvement in using the current provisions, or for some additional powers - such as a power of arrest in relation to breach of non-harassment orders. Those who favoured the introduction of new legislation did so because they felt it would send the message to offenders and the general public that stalking and harassment is a serious offence, which will not be tolerated.
There was significant criticism of current sentencing practice (especially by police), and of what was seen as a reluctance on the part of sheriffs to remand offenders in custody, even where bail conditions had been persistently breached.
Lifetime experience of persistent and unwanted attention of the kind that might be characterised as stalking is relatively widespread in Scotland - especially among women, and among younger women in particular. If we take a narrower indicator of prevalence (those people who define themselves as having been victims of stalking) and a shorter time frame (the last 12 months), victimisation rates are, of course, lower - though still at a level that suggests we should expect such offences to make relatively common appearances within the criminal justice system.
Ultimately, however, the question of whether or not stalking constitutes a problem needs to be answered less in terms of prevalence than of impact. The research suggests that stalking typically has a highly disruptive and damaging effect on the lives of victims, often long after the actual behaviours have ceased. Moreover, it emphasises the need to appreciate the effects of such behaviours as cumulative and compounding.
Although there is a high level of awareness and understanding of the issues around stalking among specialist officers working in the area of domestic abuse - and evidence that the response of these officers is often highly valued by victims - the research raises important questions about the way in which the police respond more generally to such cases.
Specifically, there is a need to heighten awareness among beat officers about appropriate operational and legal responses to course of conduct offences and for incident management systems that allow more effective 'flagging' of repeat victimisation. Consistent and sound advice needs to be to the new to the given to victims at an early stage about strategies for dealing with stalking and obtaining evidence that may help to secure a conviction. Police practice also needs to be alert to the fact that stalking is not necessarily experienced as a one-to-one relationship between victim and offender.
Although there is little enthusiasm among practitioners (or victims) for a change in current legislative arrangements, there is a widespread view that current provisions could be used more effectively. It was argued by fiscals, for example, that the police could do more in the reporting of course of conduct offences. Breach of the peace could be used more stringently, given that it is potentially an indictable offence carrying relatively severe penalties. Regardless of the penalties applied, breach of the peace convictions could be flagged to indicate that a course of conduct offence had been involved.
The research confirms that offenders in cases of stalking exhibit a wide range of characteristics, motivations and behaviours. Consequently, responses that are appropriate or effective in one case cannot necessarily be transferred to all others. There is, therefore a need for flexibility and reflexivity in determining how best to deal with individual cases.
There may well be a role for awareness raising in relation to stalking and course of conduct offences more generally, in order to emphasise to victims the unacceptability of the behaviour they face and to persuade them that any complaint they do make will be taken seriously.
A focus on the term 'stalking' may not always be helpful, as it suggests a form of victimisation that many victims and some practitioners may not recognise or relate to. Perhaps the key question is not 'what should be done about stalking?', but: how best should the criminal justice system identify, intervene in and prosecute course of conduct offences in which the victimisation resides not in a discrete act but in a pattern of persistent, unwanted and potentially threatening behaviour?
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