Police given new guidance to stop stalkers as minister says 'there is more we must do'

New legal guidance will make it easier for police to go after stalkers, after ministers admitted too many are slipping through the net.

Stalking Protection Orders were introduced four years ago and allow police to impose conditions on perpetrators not to approach or contact their victims.

But figures obtained under freedom of information laws by a victims' charity show some police forces have issued fewer than 10 per year.

A breach of one of these orders is a criminal offence carrying a sentence of up to five years.

Safeguarding minister Laura Farris has today issued new statutory guidance to all 43 police forces to apply a lower standard of proof when issuing these orders.

She told Sky News on a visit to a helpline for stalking victims: "Previously the police would have to meet the criminal standard which is beyond reasonable doubt.

"We're lowering that now, so they only have to persuade a judge on the balance of probabilities, a kind of 50-50 test, that a Stalking Prevention Order is appropriate.

"We know that stalking, particularly when it occurs in the context of a romantic relationship that has come to an end, can be a predictor of more serious offending down the line.

"We must continue to treat stalking with the utmost gravity. Having doubled the maximum sentence, and introduced a new civil order to protect victims, we know there is more we must do."

One in five women and one in 10 men will experience stalking

Victims say these orders are not issued as often as they should, because police and courts do not consider the legal threshold to be met - even when dozens of incidents are reported.

An estimated one in five women and one in 10 men will experience stalking during their lifetime, according to the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, a personal safety charity named after the young estate agent who disappeared in 1986.

Figures obtained by the trust under freedom of information laws show 12 police forces applied for fewer than 10 interim or full Stalking Protection Orders in 2022-3.

Only three forces applied for more than 30, with the total number of orders last year thought to be in the low hundreds. The number of reports of stalking to the police in that year was 116,323.

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The number of people convicted of a criminal offence of stalking in the year to March 2023, according to the latest official figures was just 1,955 - a rate of 1.7%.

'Shockingly low conviction rates'

Emma Lingley-Clark, interim chief executive of the trust, said: "This year marks another year of shockingly low conviction rates for stalking cases, and ongoing failures by the criminal justice system when keeping victims informed."

Often stalking is misunderstood as a series of individual crimes, such as criminal damage or malicious communication, and the pattern of obsessive behaviour is not understood.

'I lived every day in fear'

Sky News spoke to a woman who was stalked for eight years by someone she had never met, before securing a restraining order.

She said: "The incidences that were happening just did not add up. There were missed phone calls, text messages, then I started noticing things like criminal damage to my car and my property. I lived every day in fear. This person was infiltrating themselves into my life and my network.

"The police took each incident in isolation and didn't recognise the pattern of behaviour. I often felt victim-shamed and like I wasn't taken seriously.

"At one point I had a panic attack and a breakdown in the police station because they wouldn't help me. I cried and said: 'All I want is my safety.' It's changed me fundamentally."

It was later established that the stalker was known to police and had done this before.

Number of stalking reports increasing

Paul Mills, the lead on stalking and harassment at the National Police Chiefs Council, told Sky News the number of reports of stalking - especially cyber-stalking in which victims are pursued at least partly online - is increasing, and new software is being rolled out to help police monitor it.

He said: "Stalking is a really serious crime. We know the impacts on victims can go on for many, many years and they end up living in fear.

"Often it can be a hundred times before a victim of stalking actually contacts the police. And behind that, there is a threatened risk. We know that often the individual is fixated, and that often their behaviour will escalate quite quickly.

"What we're trying to do with the police forces across England and Wales is improve the understanding of stalking from the points of contact through the investigation, so we can understand the background of the stalkers taking place, and what the risk is."