If you or a family member is in immediate danger, please call 999. Further support can be found at http://www.refuge.org.uk/ or by phoning the free 24-hour National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247.
The government has recently announced the Stalking Bill 2019 has been given its royal assent. The Stalking Act 2019 (the Act) has not received a commencement date as yet. However, given Theresa May’s comments regarding her achievements in tackling domestic abuse in her resignation speech, the Act may come into force before she leaves office in June 2019.
The Act introduces Stalking Protection Orders – a civil order applied for by police, which will enable them to deal with cases of stalking more effectively.
And the change cannot come soon enough.
In 2016, 19-year-old Shana Grice was murdered in Portslade, East Sussex by her ex-boyfriend, Michael Lane. Before her brutal killing, Ms Grice had reported Lane to police five times in six months. Instead of helping her, police fined Ms Grice £90 for wasting their time.
Lane’s trial prompted widespread calls for action to ensure victims of stalking are taken seriously by police. Lane pursued Miss Grice by fitting a tracker to her car, stole a house key to sneak into her room while she slept, and loitered outside her home. It later emerged 13 other women had reported him to the police for stalking.
One can only imagine how terrified this young woman was and how helpless she felt when her fears were dismissed by authorities.
A police force disciplinary panel ruled that a former police officer (whose full name has not been released) failed Ms Grice. Furthermore, his behaviour amounted to gross misconduct.
Could provisions in the Stalking Act 2019 have saved Ms Grice?
What is a Stalking Protection Order?
Under the Stalking Act 2019, a police officer can apply to the Magistrates’ Court for a Stalking Protection Order on behalf of a victim if:
- the defendant has carried out acts associated with stalking,
- the defendant poses a risk associated with stalking to another person, and
- there is reasonable cause to believe the proposed order is necessary to protect another person from such a risk (whether or not the other person was the victim of the acts mentioned in paragraph (a)).
Acts associated with stalking include physical and/or psychological harm which arise from acts the Defendant knows or ought to have known are unwelcome to the complainant, even if the acts would appear harmless in isolation.
Because a Stalking Protection Order is a civil order, it is subject to the civil standard of proof. This means the Magistrate must base his or her decision on the balance of probabilities rather than the Defendant being guilty “beyond reasonable doubt”.
Breaching an SPO is a criminal offence and carries a penalty of up to five years’ imprisonment.
How is a Stalking Protection Order different from a Non-Molestation Order?
An SPO differs from Non-Molestation Order (NMO) in the following way:
- An NMO is normally granted for 12 months. SPOs last for a minimum of two years and a maximum of “until further notice”, in other words, indefinitely.
- The complainant must apply for an NMO. SPOs are applied for by the police.
Finding the funds to apply for an NMO is hard for many victims because they fail the means test for legal aid eligibility. Although it is free to apply to the Court for an NMO, most applicants require legal advice to produce the evidence required to grant the Order, especially in ex-parte (without notice) applications.
However, the introduction of SPOs may provide a lifeline to victims of domestic abuse desperate to keep their abuser away from them but unable to fund legal advice for an NMO. A family law Solicitor can refer such victims back to the Domestic Abuse Specialist police officer who can make an application for an SPO free of charge. Because it is the police, not the victim making the application, it is for the former to produce a case arguing that the SPO be granted.
Could an SPO have saved Shana Grice? Possibly. Under the Act, if Ms Grice had talked to a Solicitor, they could have pressured the police to make an SPO application. Even though her killer faced no criminal charges at the time of the stalking, he could have been made subject to an SPO. And, unlike an NMO, an SPO can be applied for to protect victims from people they have had no prior relationship with (i.e. stranger stalking).
SPOs will provide family law Solicitors with options to protect victims of domestic abuse who struggle to apply for an NMO because they do not meet the criteria for legal aid. And the more power and choices a victim of domestic abuse has, the easier it is to protect them.
Support services for domestic violence victims
National Centre for Domestic Violence (NCDV) – 0800 970 20 70
Refuge – 0808 2000 247 (24 hours)
Women’s Aid 0808 200 0247 (24 hours)
ManKind – 01823 334 244
Galop LGBT Domestic Abuse Helpline – 0800 999 5428
Rosie Bracher is a specialist family law solicitors based in Barnstaple. We have the knowledge and expertise to advise you on all matters involving children and family law. Please contact our office on 01271 314 904 and arrange to speak to one of our team.