The Guardian view on stalking: police and prosecutors are failing women

<span>Lia, one of the women to share her story in the Netflix documentary Can I Tell You A Secret?.</span><span>Photograph: Courtesy of Netflix</span>
Lia, one of the women to share her story in the Netflix documentary Can I Tell You A Secret?.Photograph: Courtesy of Netflix

You only had to listen to the victims in Can I Tell You a Secret?, the Netflix documentary based on a Guardian podcast by Sirin Kale, to gain vivid insight into just how disturbing stalking can be. Matthew Hardy used tricks of impersonation and identity theft to manipulate, humiliate and threaten multiple women on social media. But in one important way he was atypical. While some of his targets were acquaintances, others were strangers who lived hundreds of miles away. Much more common is the experience of being stalked by someone you know. Data from the Suzy Lamplugh Trust shows that in the year to March 2023, 66.5% of victims were stalked by former partners. Other perpetrators were friends or colleagues, while just 6% were strangers. Almost 90% of victims were female.

The extent of Hardy’s offending, which continued for 11 years, has led to an eight-year sentence. But this is exceptionally rare. Of 117,672 stalking reports to police in England and Wales in the year to 2022, just 6.6% resulted in a charge, and 1.4% in a conviction. Of those, less than a third resulted in a custodial sentence, with the average term around a year. The grim reality is that most stalkers get away with their crimes.

This would be bad enough on its own. What makes it worse is that in an alarming number of cases, stalking is a prelude to horrifying violence. Between 2015 and 2017, 60 women in the UK were murdered by stalkers they had reported to police. In one disgraceful case a woman, Shana Grice, was fined for wasting police time before she was killed. And in November police in Derbyshire apologised for failures in the way Gracie Spinks’ complaints about a stalker were dealt with before she too was murdered.

Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) guidance refers to stalking’s “obsessive” nature. In the case of Edward Vines, who was sent to prison for eight years in 2022 for stalking the journalist Emily Maitlis, the fixation had lasted decades. In cases where stalking is racially aggravated, it can carry a maximum sentence of 14 years. But the more frequent pattern is one in which charges are downgraded either to harassment or less serious stalking offences – although a lack of data hampers the efforts of those trying to scrutinise what is going on.

Clearer information from the CPS was among the recommendations in a recent report from the Suzy Lamplugh Trust. The charity has also submitted a super-complaint alleging serious failures in the handling of stalking offences, and called for more training for police, prosecutors and judges, to strengthen their understanding of the offence and the harm it causes. They also want improved communication with victims. These criticisms echo the findings of another report seven years ago, and a response is expected soon. Twelve years after stalking was criminalised, it is deeply concerning that good practice has not been embedded. More effective use must be made of stalking protection orders – which can include the confiscation of devices and a requirement to let police access social media accounts – while evidence is gathered.

Stalking victims are not the only people facing damaging delays and disruption in the courts as a result of cuts and closures. But the crime’s nature means it is more likely than others to continue until perpetrators are stopped. Waiting for justice can entail waiting for highly intrusive and alarming harassment to end. The failure to tackle it robustly means that too many victims are being left dangerously exposed.

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