Queen's Policy Engagement

Northern Ireland’s New Stalking Legislation

In the latest of a series of articles, Dr Ronagh McQuigg looks at the legal protections that are now in place to protect victims of stalking.

Northern Ireland’s New Stalking Legislation

Since the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly in January 2020, the issue of domestic abuse has been a key priority of the Department of Justice, resulting in the enactment of a number of pieces of legislation relevant to this issue.  The most prominent of these is the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act (Northern Ireland) 2021, section 1 of which establishes a specific criminal law offence of domestic abuse.  However, there have also been other important legislative developments relevant to domestic abuse.  In particular, on 26 April 2022 two new offences regarding stalking passed into law in Northern Ireland under the Protection from Stalking Act (Northern Ireland) 2022.


The Need for Stalking Legislation

In recent times stalking has been recognised as a form of domestic abuse.  Indeed analysis carried out by the Crown Prosecution Service in England and Wales in 2020 found that most stalking offences are committed by abusive ex-partners.  84 per cent of stalking cases sampled at random from across England and Wales involved complaints against ex-partners and in 75 per cent of cases, domestic abuse had previously been reported during the relationship. An effective approach to addressing domestic abuse should therefore encompass a sufficient response to stalking.

Up until the passing of the new Protection from Stalking Act, the legislative position in Northern Ireland on this issue had been ‘lagging behind’ other parts of the UK.  In England and Wales, the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 had been amended by the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 to include an offence of stalking under section 2A and also an offence of stalking involving fear of violence or serious alarm or distress under section 4A.

In Scotland, an offence of stalking had been enacted under section 39 of the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010.  However, until the enactment of the Protection from Stalking Act in April 2022 there was no specific offence of stalking in Northern Ireland. Instead the more general offences of harassment as found in article 4 of the Protection from Harassment (Northern Ireland) Order 1997, and putting people in fear of violence as found in article 6 of the Order, had to be relied upon in cases involving stalking.

Nevertheless, since 2016 some steps had been taken with the aim of addressing the deficiencies in Northern Ireland’s legislative position as regards stalking.  The then Justice Minister, Claire Sugden MLA, had commissioned a review of the law relating to stalking in Northern Ireland, and in September of that year the Northern Ireland Assembly debated a motion on stalking.  The Committee for Justice then initiated its own review of the law to determine whether specific stalking offences should be enacted.

However, although the Committee was due to conclude its review in April 2017 and subsequently publish its findings, the suspension of the Assembly from January 2017 meant that this review was not completed.  Nevertheless, the Department of Justice’s review team built on the work of the Justice Committee and proceeded to review the existing legislative framework, engage with other jurisdictions regarding their approaches to stalking and develop proposals.

In November 2018, the Department of Justice launched a public consultation on the creation of a new offence of stalking in Northern Ireland.  A report of the consultation and a summary of responses was published in November 2019.  93 per cent of respondents to the consultation were of the view that the current legislative position was insufficient. The Department therefore stated that it would be recommending to an incoming Justice Minister that draft legislation which would introduce a new specific offence of stalking should be developed.  Such legislation was ultimately introduced to the Assembly on 18 January 2021, and was enacted into law on 26 April 2022.


The Protection from Stalking Act (Northern Ireland) 2022

Under section 1 of the Protection from Stalking Act (Northern Ireland) 2022, a new offence of stalking is created.  This offence is committed if a person (A) engages in a course of conduct that causes another person (B) to suffer fear, alarm or substantial distress or is such that a reasonable person, or a reasonable person who has any particular knowledge of B that A has, would consider to be likely to cause them to suffer fear, alarm or substantial distress.  However, in order for the offence to be committed, A must have either intended the conduct to cause fear, alarm or substantial distress, or ought in the circumstances to have known that this effect would have been caused.

A ‘course of conduct’ is defined as meaning conduct on two or more occasions, and ‘substantial distress’ is defined as distress which has a substantial adverse effect on B’s day to day activities.  The maximum penalty for commission of the stalking offence is, on conviction in the Magistrates’ Court, 12 months imprisonment or a fine or both; or on conviction in the Crown Court, a term of imprisonment of up to 10 years or a fine or both.

Under section 2 of the Act, an offence of threatening or abusive behaviour is also created.  This offence is committed where a person (A) behaves in a threatening or abusive manner and the behaviour would be likely to cause a reasonable person to suffer fear and alarm; and A intends the behaviour to have this effect or is reckless as to whether it does so.  The behaviour in question can be of any type including things said or otherwise communicated as well as actions, and can consist of a single act or a course of conduct.  The maximum penalty for commission of the offence of threatening or abusive behaviour is, on conviction in the Magistrates’ Court, 12 months imprisonment or a fine or both; or on conviction in the Crown Court, a term of imprisonment of up to five years or a fine or both.

In addition, sections 6-17 of the Act provide for the introduction of Stalking Protection Orders.

Such an order can prohibit a person from carrying out acts associated with stalking, such as entering certain locations where the victim resides or frequently visits, contacting the victim by any means or approaching the victim.  A Stalking Protection Order can also impose requirements such as attending a perpetrator intervention programme.  The PSNI may apply to the court for such an order if it appears that a person has carried out acts associated with stalking and poses a risk associated with stalking, and that there is reasonable cause to believe that an order is necessary to protect another person from this risk.


A Welcome Development

The enactment of the Protection from Stalking Act is indisputably a very welcome development.  As the Justice Minister, Naomi Long MLA, has commented,

“The delivery of this new legislation offers greater protection in our communities and its passing will be of great significance to anyone affected by stalking…This new legislation will play a crucial part in generating confidence in victims to come forward and report to the police in the knowledge that they will receive the support and protections they need and deserve to feel safe.”

It is certainly meritorious that the clear legislative gap in relation to addressing the issue of stalking has been rectified, and that Northern Ireland has now ‘caught up’ with the other jurisdictions in the UK in this respect.  The creation of the new offences, along with the availability of Stalking Protection Orders, should make a vital contribution to the protection of victims of stalking, including in the context of domestic abuse.


The featured image has been used courtesy of a Creative Commons license.  

Dr Ronagh McQuigg
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Dr Ronagh McQuigg is a senior lecturer in the School of Law at Queen's University Belfast. Her research interests are in the area of international human rights law, with a particular focus on how human rights law can be used in relation to violence against women.

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