Victims group says database would be ‘invaluable’
A register for stalkers should be considered as part of new legislation to tackle the issue in Northern Ireland, a victims’ advocacy group has said.
Louise Kennedy, from Victim Support NI, made the recommendation to Stormont’s justice committee as part of an oral evidence hearing yesterday.
She told the committee's chair, Paul Givan, that the group was “delighted" the Protection from Stalking Bill had progressed, describing it as a “good piece of legislation”.
"It had been a law literally in the making for years at this point,” explained Ms Kennedy.
The policy and communications manager revealed that stalking victims here find it hard to initially report instances of stalking, stressing that when they are, they are being “taken in isolation and not as a pattern of behaviour”.
The Protection from Stalking Bill was formally introduced to the Assembly in January, before passing its second stage the following month. It has now been referred to the Committee for Justice for Committee Stage.
The PSNI currently deals with stalking under the Protection from Harassment Order (NI) 1997. This leaves Northern Ireland lagging behind other parts of the UK.
Louise also warned that some victims have been placed in “more vulnerable” positions due to stay-at-home messages during the pandemic and online stalking at universities has “massively increased” due to more online forms of teaching.
She stressed that the committee may wish to consider introducing a stalkers’ register under the bill as a “valuable preventative tool”.
"It may be useful to set up a stalking register given the fact that some stalkers are serial perpetrators,” explained the manager.
"A register has been flagged as a good idea… Most victims tell us that their main wish from the justice system, in addition to their own safety, is for no one else to go through what they did.
"And a register may help that wish to become a reality.”
Louise added that she anticipated that such a register would operate on a similar basis to that of the sex offenders’ register.
"I suppose one of the differences is: if you have a stalking register, would it only be applicable if someone, for example, has been convicted under stalking legislation. And obviously there is always going to be presumption of innocence for defendants’ rights and the rights of victims to be balanced.”
She stressed that in order for the bill to be successful in practice, resources would also be further enhanced for the PSNI.
Louise also welcomed the use of gender-neutral language in the bill, adding: “It is important to recognise that stalking can happen to anyone, though it is disproportionately experienced by women and perpetrated by men.”
Groups representing the LGBTQ+ community warned that cases of stalking are under reported for people they advocate for.
Amanda McGurk, from Cara-Friend, said the first barrier faced by the LGBTQ+ community is disclosing their sexuality or gender identity, when reporting stalking incidents. Under the new bill, the most serious offences will carry a penalty of up to 10 years in prison.