Stalking victims 'let down' over new laws

Victims of stalking in England and Wales are being let down by police and prosecutors a year after new laws were introduced to help protect them, Newsbeat has been told.

Stalking became a criminal offence in England and Wales in 2012.

But Paladin, which helps victims, says too few police have been trained in how to enforce the laws, and sentencing guidelines have not been updated.

The Home Office says it is working to ensure the changes are implemented.

Paladin co-director Harry Fletcher says more needs to be done.

"They need to up their game, and ensure more officers are trained in the next nine months as do prosecutors.

"Everyone who prosecutes must understand what stalking is and how dangerous the behaviour can be."

The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 was amended by the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 to include two new specific offences of stalking.

Under the new legislation, for the first time there is a charge relating to the victim's fear of violence being used against them as well as an actual attack.

A person guilty of stalking faces six months in jail. Stalking and causing a fear of violence carries a maximum five-year sentence.

Home Secretary ­Theresa May brought in the legislation after a government inquiry suggested 120,000 stalking offences were committed every year.

Among those who believe police should have done more when dealing with their case is 28-year-old Sarah, whose name has been changed to protect her.

She says she has been stalked by her estranged father for the last four years and even though she has told police of fears for her safety, she claims they have failed to act.

"I've changed cities twice to get away from him. He's constantly stalking my mum and siblings. I've had to change emails and mobile numbers, but he still continues to get in touch.

"He's a violent and unpredictable man.

"I'm so scared of what he could do."

Sarah says she has been to the police several times.

"They don't view it as stalking. They say I need six months' worth of evidence before they can do anything. Even then, who knows?

"I've just accepted now that things have to get worse before they take any action."

The police who dealt with Sarah's case say they did not feel there was enough evidence at the time to prove her claim of stalking.

A Freedom of Information request carried out by Paladin showed that in the first six months of the new law being introduced, only one in four police officers received the training to understand the new legislation.

Assistant Chief Constable Garry Shewan, the Association of Chief Police Officers' national policing lead on stalking and harassment, says: "A year on, we've successfully prosecuted a number of offences, but I have to accept we haven't made as much progress as we'd like to.

"We're redoubling our efforts."

He says police always take action when someone is in fear, and says that although they do not get it right every single time, he has spoken to many victims who are satisfied with the help they get.

He says training has taken place in many different ways including online courses and face-to-face training.

Prosecutions

Paladin also says training for prosecutors has not been sufficient. Another Freedom of Information request by them showed 189 people were charged with stalking offences, with six receiving jail sentences, in the six months from December.

The service believes that figure is low. It estimates the number of charges would be nearer 1,800 based on similar anti-stalking laws passed in Scotland in 2010.

The Crown Prosecution Service say in the past year, 438 offences of stalking cases have been brought and that they are continuing to raise awareness of training.

They say defendants are being successfully prosecuted under this new legislation, but added that they recognise "there is more work to be done to raise the profile and understanding of stalking across the criminal justice system".

On Monday, the director of public prosecutions is writing to police and prosecutors to discuss ensuring more effective use of the legislation.

Crime Prevention Minister Norman Baker says: "Stalking is an appalling crime which can destroy lives. Our stalking laws send a clear message that those responsible should be brought to justice.

"We are working with the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to ensure the stalking offences are being used appropriately."

Follow @BBCNewsbeat on Twitter