15:17, April 22 228 0 theguardian.com

2017-04-22 15:17:02

 

Stalkers unlikely to be jailed even for repeat offences, official figures show

Offenders convicted of stalking or harassment who repeatedly breach their restraining orders often escape with fines and non-custodial sentences, according to new figures.

Politicians and victim support groups warn that lives are being put at risk by failure to take action against repeat offenders who habitually breach the orders, which can be imposed for a range of offences also including domestic violence and coercive control.

Figures from the Ministry of Justice in response to parliamentary questions reveal that the number of restraining orders imposed by courts in England and Wales rose from 20,356 in 2013 to 23,057 in 2015, up 13%. Just over a third of these – nearly 8,500 – were breached. Penalties for breaching an order can result in a prison sentence of up to five years. But MoJ figures reveal that almost two-thirds of those who breached their orders received a non-custodial sentence. Even when the offender had committed multiple breaches, a custodial term was unlikely.

Almost 60% of those who breached a second time avoided a custodial sentence. Almost half of those who breached a third time (49%) avoided jail, as did 38% of those who breached on four occasions.

The government said in December that it was “determined to do everything possible to protect all victims of stalking and stop perpetrators at the earliest opportunity”. But victims’ charities said the law was failing to protect the vulnerable who, in the vast majority of cases, were women.

“Stalking victims are being put at great risk when police, CPS and courts fail to uphold restraining orders and allow breaches to go unpunished,” said Claire Waxman, a stalking survivor who founded the charity Voice4Victims. “This gives the stalker the belief that their behaviour is acceptable and that the order is meaningless. The victim suffers further trauma as they realise that they are powerless and that this legal intervention does not deter their abuser, nor provide any real security or protection. The victim is left vulnerable and fearful of what will come next.”

Experts say that the breach rate for stalking and harassment restraining orders is significantly higher than for other offences, because of the obsessive nature of the perpetrators’ behaviour. But victim support groups said that unless firm action was taken against perpetrators there remained a significant risk that their crimes could escalate into further serious offences such as rape, assault and murder.

Emily Maitlis, a journalist on BBC Newsnight, was stalked for 25 years by a former university acquaintance, Edward Vines, despite his being subject to an order forbidding contact with her. Vines was jailed only after breaching the order on two occasions. Victim support groups claim that better monitoring of restraining orders to ensure compliance with them would help reduce the threat of harm to victims – and send a clear signal to perpetrators that continued harassment would result in custody.

The Sentencing Council for England and Wales, the independent body responsible for developing sentencing guidelines for the courts, is consulting on breach offences, including those involving restraining orders. The council will hand down new draft guidelines on Tuesday that some MPs hope will result in a tougher line against repeat offenders.

Liz Saville Roberts, Plaid Cymru’s justice and home affairs spokesperson, said: “It is clear that sanctions for failing to comply with restraining orders must be strengthened.”

Harry Fletcher, co-director of Voice4Victims, said: “There should be a presumption of custody if a person breaches on two or more occasions. There should also be consistency in the conditions imposed in restraining orders and these must include banning the offender from making contact through social media, via a third party and from making vexatious applications in the family or civil courts.”

The Ministry of Justice said: “Decisions on the sentence to be imposed for breaches of such orders are for judges and magistrates, who will make their decision based on the full facts of the individual case they are hearing.”