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Victims of harassment and stalking left at risk by police and CPS

New report states that 'not one of 112 cases was handled well'

People who have suffered repeated harassment or stalking are frequently being let down by under-recording, inconsistent services and a lack of understanding by the criminal justice system, according to a report - Living in fear – the police and CPS response to harassment and stalking - published by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) and Her Majesty's Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate (HMCPSI).

A joint inspection found that crimes of harassment and stalking were often missed or misunderstood by both the police and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). As a result, inspectors found cases where offenders were allowed to continue their persecution of victims, or victims were not protected with the powers in place to prevent this kind of personal and persistent crime.

The victims described the lasting and life-changing effects these offences can have – but also said that, all too often, police officers failed to recognise the repeat and targeted actions as a pattern of behaviour, instead treating them as isolated incidents.

HMIC and HMCPSI worked with the University of Worcester to speak to victims and gain an insight into their experiences of harassment and stalking.

Her Majesty's Inspector of Constabulary, Wendy Williams, who led the inspection, said:

"We spoke to many victims of harassment and stalking during this inspection and found that these are crimes of persistence and control. Repeat patterns of behaviour can have a devastating effect on a person's quality of life. Sadly, in the digital world, crimes of harassment and stalking are occurring more frequently.

"Police forces must act quickly to protect victims, including survivors of domestic abuse leaving coercive or controlling relationships. It is not acceptable that victims and their families are left to live in fear, or have to change their lives because of someone else's behaviour.

"While we found some evidence that the police and CPS understand the risks of the repeat behaviours, as well as some examples of positive practice where victims' needs were prioritised, we found worrying failings at every stage, including reporting, investigation and prosecution. Changes need to be made immediately and the recommendations in the report should be acted upon without delay to protect victims from further harm."

Inspectors reviewed 112 cases of stalking and harassment as part of this inspection, examining both police and CPS actions. These were taken from six force and CPS areas across England and Wales. While there was some evidence of good service provided by police or prosecutors, none of these 112 cases was dealt with well overall.

Inspectors found that incidents of harassment and stalking are often dealt with in isolation by both police and prosecutors. As a result, victims are being given varying advice, including in many cases that the individual incidents are not significant. Often, therefore, the severity of the overall situation is overlooked.

While there are powers and protection orders in place to help prevent offending of this kind, such as Police Information Notices (PINs), inspectors found most of these were constantly misused and did not cover all types of offences. These measures also rely on the officer correctly identifying incidents as harassment or stalking – which was found frequently not to be the case.

Forces need to improve their understanding of harassment and stalking. Some of these victims are at considerable risk, and failing to identify and tackle this can have fatal consequences. Police leaders across the service need to grip this issue urgently – especially as the findings came as little surprise to the victims' groups consulted as part of this work.

Additionally, inspectors found that prosecutors were charging stalking offences as harassment, meaning charges did not reflect the seriousness of the offence and victims were not receiving the support they required. There were also varying practices in different CPS Areas on whether decisions to alter or reduce charges had to be approved by managers.

In order to be able to give victims the service they deserve, inspectors have made a series of recommendations to the Home Office, the College of Policing and the National Police Chiefs' Council, as well as forces and the CPS. The recommendations include carrying out a review of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, making clear the definitions of offences, conducting risk assessments for victims and the extension of prevention orders to help victims.

Responding to the report, Chief Executive of Suzy Lamplugh Trust which runs the National Stalking Helpline, Rachel Griffin, said:

"We welcome this report from HMIC and HMCPSI which recognises that more needs to be done to protect and support victims of stalking and harassment. Since the National Stalking Helpline started in 2010, we have supported over 21,000 people, and appealed time and time again for an improved understanding of stalking in the criminal justice system and more specialist services. This is the first time that an inspection into stalking and harassment has been carried out, but the findings are no surprise: there is an urgent need for systemic change.

"We call for every police force and prosecuting agency to commit to ensuring that frontline staff receive robust, specialist stalking awareness training. Early identification and response to stalking can save lives, and it is imperative that criminal justice professionals increase their understanding of this crime. There must be development across the entire criminal justice system so that victims of stalking get the protection that they deserve."

For the report, click here.