Belfast Telegraph

Victims of stalking living in fear after political stalemate, warns campaigner

By Victoria Leonard

Stalking victims have been left feeling "gagged by fear" after a Justice Committee review that could have led to specific legalisation was put on ice, a campaigner has claimed.

Vicky Clarke, who founded advice and support organisation Stalking NI after being harassed by a former partner for five years, is spearheading a campaign to introduce new stalking legislation locally.

In England and Wales, a Bill making stalking a specific offence was introduced in 2012, and in December Home Secretary Amber Rudd announced her intention to enact stalking protection orders, which will help protect victims in those countries earlier.

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However, there are no stalking laws in Northern Ireland. Instead, prosecutions for such behaviour are brought under the Protection from Harassment Order (NI) 1997, which Vicky said was "not fit for purpose".

She wants to see a new, targeted law including measures such as a stalkers' register, a tagging system for the perpetrators in high-risk cases and specialist training and clinics to accurately assess the risk to victims.

Under the new system, special measures would be afforded to victims terrified to face their stalkers in court.

Vicky has also called for a "zero-tolerance" approach from police from the first instance of stalking behaviour, with all activity recorded for statistical purposes and a central database established containing the offender's civil and criminal cases.

The Justice Committee had been due to present its report on the Review of the Need for Stalking Legislation in Northern Ireland to the Assembly on April 6.

In a November 2016 letter to an elected representative, which was seen by this newspaper, then Justice Minister Claire Sugden said it was her intention to "legislate to create a specific offence of stalking in 2017."

However, with the Assembly in stasis, neither has happened.

Vicky told the Belfast Telegraph: "Due to our current ministerial situation, stalking legislation has been put on hold, albeit along with all other business, but it is vital that the PSNI is equipped sooner rather than later to bring this crime to prosecution. Since I formed Stalking NI in 2015, I have helped at least 36 women, and I would be seeing stalking victims on a daily basis at the moment.

"This could include women who are being followed or the stalker turns up in different places or smears them online and contacts their friends to try and ruin their reputation.

"One woman didn't even want to put up her Christmas decorations for fear of provoking her stalker.

"The constant hyper-vigilance these women go through can lead to anxiety, and some can suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, as I did.

"This is ruining women's lives. Why are women in Northern Ireland being treated as second class citizens?"

A Department of Justice spokesperson said: "Maximum penalties on conviction range from six months' to seven years' imprisonment.

"The Northern Ireland Assembly agreed a motion on September 12, 2016 which asked the Minister of Justice to examine whether the introduction of new legislation was needed to protect and safeguard victims of stalking in Northern Ireland.

"The department is reviewing the operation of the current law and the experience in other jurisdictions where specific offences of stalking exist. This will lead to the development of detailed policy proposals for consideration by the Assembly."

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