Harassment law ‘just not good enough’ in dealing with stalking

Senator Lisa Chambers brings forward Bill after hearing experiences of women affected by issue

Una Ring and Eve McDowell, co-founders of Stalking Ireland, are pictured at Leinster House where Fianna Fáil  Senator Lisa Chambers was discussing the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person (Amendment) (Stalking) Bill. Photograph: Dara MacDónaill

Una Ring and Eve McDowell, co-founders of Stalking Ireland, are pictured at Leinster House where Fianna Fáil Senator Lisa Chambers was discussing the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person (Amendment) (Stalking) Bill. Photograph: Dara MacDónaill

 

Current laws on harassment do not adequately protect women against predatory men, a Fianna Fáil senator has said.

Lisa Chambers has proposed that a new crime of stalking be put on the statute book with a maximum sentence of 10 years.

She said she disagreed with the Department of Justice’s view that updated harassment laws sufficient deal with stalking.

“We take a very different view,” she said. “It does not display the gravity of the offence or the seriousness of the crime. The victims serve a life sentence for what they are being put through. It’s just not good enough.”

Ms Chambers has moved the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person (Amendment) (Stalking) Bill to second stage in Seanad. It seeks to introduce a standalone offence of stalking into lrish law, as recommended by the Law Reform Commission.

The definition of stalking in the Bill is “repeated, unwanted behaviour that occurs as a result of fixation or obsession and causes alarm, distress or harm to the victim and to provide for related matters”.

Reports tripled

She said similar laws have been on the statute books in England, Scotland and Wales for more than a decade. They had led to a tripling of stalking reports between 2014 and 2018.

“We will see an increase in prosecutions. We will see an increase in people charged and perpetrators behind bars and only then will we see true justice for the people (affected),” she said.

“The crime of stalking has a very severe and long-lasting impact on the victim long after the situation has ended...We want to see the victims being listened to. There is a lack of knowledge of the law in this area. There is a lack of enforcement and there is a lack of training.”

Ms Chambers said she had brought forward the Bill after hearing of the experiences of Una Ring and Eve McDowell, who were victims of stalking. They have set up a website, Stalking Ireland, to offer support to victims.

Ms Ring said she hoped the proposed legislation, if passed, would give victims of stalking more confidence in reporting the crime, gardaí more powers to police the issue and that it would deter people from stalking.

“If there is a crime there should be a deterrent,” she said. “Harassment is more an annoyance. Stalking is far more sinister. The end result for a stalker is either rape or murder...When you have the garda outside your house to protect you, you can’t call that harassment.”

Ms Chambers said there was cross-party support for her proposal and that she hoped the legislation would eventually be passed. “We have a long way to go, but we are confident we can make progress on this.”

The Government on Wednesday night said it would not oppose the Bill but has no plan currently to introduce a stand-alone offence of stalking.

Minister of State for Justice James Browne said they will wait until the review in 2023 of existing harassment legislation before considering the introduction of a stand-alone offence of stalking.

During a Seanad debate on Ms Chamber’s Bill, Mr Browne said the Government stood over its conclusion last year when it introduced legislation on harassment, known as Coco’s law, “that there was no clear benefit to be gained from the introduction of a standard stalking offence as the elements of the offence were clearly encompassed within the parameters of the harassment offence”.

Case studies:

In the early hours of July 27th last year, gardaí arrested James Steele outside Ms Ring’s home in Youghal, Co Cork. He was carrying a metal crowbar, a rope, duct tape and a sex toy. His arrest and conviction ended a terrifying ordeal for Ms Ring, which went on for five months.

Ms Ring and Steele had worked together and he became obsessed with her after leaving the firm. When she refused to reciprocate his advances, he slashed the tyres on her car, painted noughts and crosses on the door of her home and sent her explicit letters threatening to rape her and her daughter if she did not have sex with him.

Australian-born Steele, who lived in Roscarberry, Co Cork, received a seven year sentence with the last two years suspended at Cork Circuit Criminal Court in February. He pleaded guilty to charges of harassment, attempted burglary with intent to rape, and possession of articles with intent to cause a crime.

Escalated

Eve McDowell (21) was relentlessly stalked by a fellow NUI Galway student, Igor Lewandowski, who had been a casual acquaintance.

He began harassing her by visiting a shop where she worked in Galway and it then escalated. He was arrested after he broke into her apartment at Dún na Coiribe, Headford Road, Galway using a clawhammer, which he assaulted her flatmate with. He later received a seven year sentence after pleading guilty to harassment and aggravated assault.

Ms McDowell said the essence of stalking could be distilled down to four behaviours under the acronym F.O.U.R - fixated, obsessive, unwanted and repeated.

She said a lot of women had come forward complaining of harassment but had not described it as stalking. She said she had met victims who said they had gone to various garda stations about stalking but felt their stories were not taken seriously.

“It takes everything to report this and to be turned away and told there is nothing that they can do is disheartening,” she said.