NI is only region of UK or Ireland without stalking legislation - now a public consultation aims to address the problem
Northern Ireland is currently the only region in the UK or Ireland without specific legislation on stalking - but a public consultation has been launched on how best to protect victims of obsessive, harassing behaviour. Allison Morris reports
WHILE Stormont is now into its third year of collapse, the man in charge of drafting criminal justice laws says the absence of an executive should not stop work to protect victims of stalking.
Brian Grzymek, head of criminal justice policy and legislation at the Department of Justice, along with Barbara Compston who is heading up a stalking review team, met with both male and female victims of stalking prior to the launch of a consultation on measures to address the problem.
Stalking covers a wide spectrum of behaviour. While the majority of stalkers are obsessive ex-partners, others can be brief acquaintances or strangers who have became fixated on their victim.
So far the team have been looking at best practice across Britain. With different legislation in England, Scotland and Wales, they hope to pick out aspects of each to create a system bespoke to Northern Ireland.
Currently the PSNI are restricted to using 20-year-old harassment laws.
"Harassment legislation was, at the time, seen as covering stalking, but it's not a perfect cover, it was of its time," said Mr Grzymek.
"There are things we can do outside of legislation, even without an assembly, to make things better but this is a consultation and we're not predicting the outcome.
"We've already gone through a rigorous process. We've talked to victims' groups, a lot of individual victims and experts here and elsewhere, we've also linked into some of the national groups like the Suzy Lamplugh Trust and the Hampshire Stalking Clinic (a treatment centre for perpetrators of stalking).
"Stalking is enormously psychologically damaging and of course we do know every year a number of victims die, because while stalkers are likely to be seen as sad obsessives, the truth is amongst them there are also some real predators.
"This is a serious issue but at times it is not recognised as that. One of our victims' groups pointed out that stalking here is where domestic violence was 20 years ago.
"We are in a much better place now in relation to domestic violence and our understanding and research shows that we need to move in that same direction for stalking.
"We want people to come into the system earlier and things like Stalking Prevention Orders to put legal barriers in place could help. We know if the obsessive behaviour is interrupted earlier you've a better change of breaking the link."
One of Northern Ireland's most senior family court lawyers, Sinead Larkin of Larkin O'Connor Cassidy, said she is in favour of legislative change.
She said current provisions are "very hit and miss"
"My experience in 22 years of practice is that some police officers can be very attentive to the needs of the victim, while others can be ignorant of legislation, to the point where we've had to threaten them with the Police Ombudsman.
"The system needs addressed in terms of legislation but also practical reforms - the current narrowing of availability of domestic violence scheme funding for instance.
"The person more likely to be the victim of harassment and stalking at the end of a relationship is the parent with care.
"That is a person who will often be working part time to support their family and fall outside the boundaries for legal aid. A person on state benefits will, on the other hand, be publicly funded to take repeated applications, which means the justice system becomes part of the stalking.
"Independent legal representation for victims of harassment and stalking when the case reaches the criminal court, such has been suggested for rape complainants, should also be available.
"Navigating a complicated and unfamiliar justice system without independent legal support can be daunting, distressing and at times feel like part of the harassment."
A public awareness event will be held today at Girdwood Community Hub on Girdwood Avenue in Belfast between 4pm and 6.30pm. For details see eventbrite.co.uk.
The document Stalking - A Serious Concern can be found on the Department of Justice website and the consultation is open to organisations and individuals.