Why is the justice system failing stalking victims?

The crime carries a hefty maximum sentence—but perpetrators often get off lightly, while police too often dismiss women’s concerns. The only explanation is misogyny

February 09, 2024
Police attend the scene on Bywater Place, Rotherhithe. Via YouTube
Police attend the scene on Bywater Place, Rotherhithe. Via YouTube

The case of the Rotherhithe stalker Bryce Hodgson highlights many of the injustices still faced by victims of stalking. On 30th January, Hodgson—who had forced his way into the victim’s property wearing a gas mask and carrying a crossbow, sword, hatchet and knife—was shot dead by the police. He had previously been convicted of stalking the woman and was subject to a restraining order preventing him from going near her address, but had been given a suspended sentence due to what the court described as his “previous good character”. 

To those of us who work with victims of domestic abuse and stalking, this incident was completely terrifying, depressingly predictable and, if the criminal justice system took stalking more seriously, could also have been preventable.

The Office for National Statistics estimates that more than 2.5m people are victims of stalking every year in England and Wales, but the true number is likely to be higher. By definition, stalking requires proof of a course of conduct rather than a one-off incident, and it is said that on average a victim will have experienced over more than 100 incidents before they report a stalker to the police for the first time.

Stalking became a criminal offence in 2012 and carries a maximum sentence of 10 years imprisonment, which reflects its seriousness. However, stalkers rarely get a prison sentence, let alone one anywhere near 10 years long. Hodgson was given a short, suspended sentence, which seems a rather feeble punishment, given that he was convicted of stalking involving serious alarm or distress.

Stalking is not just low-level, unwanted attention from a harmless ex, as it is commonly portrayed in the media. According to the Femicide Census, a woman is killed by a man every three days in the UK, the majority by a current or ex-partner. A study from the University of Gloucester found that stalking behaviour was present in 94 per cent of cases where women were murdered by men. If stalking was dealt with more robustly, then these homicides could potentially be prevented. At Paladin, the national stalking advocacy service, we call this “murder in slow motion”: the escalating risk is plain to see, but tragically is routinely ignored by the police. The Gloucester study also demonstrated that in 64 per cent of those homicides, the victim had been in contact with the police prior to the murder. 

So why doesn’t the criminal justice system take stalking more seriously? The joint inspection of the police and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and His Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate found that stalking was “misunderstood” by the police and CPS, and often not recorded properly. Both have clear policies about why it is important to treat this crime seriously and how to deal with it proactively, but the reality on the ground for victims is very different. 

Every day, I hear from victims who have reported stalking behaviour and been fobbed off by the police. Some are even given advice that can actually increase their risk of significant harm—for example to change their phone number. Some victims are too often told to ignore their stalker’s behaviour or that if they read about the threats the perpetrator is making about them on social media they could be committing stalking themselves. Shana Grice, a teenager from Sussex, was given a fixed penalty notice for wasting police time when she reported being stalked by her ex-boyfriend on five separate occasions. Five months later she had been murdered by him. 

Too often, victims are met with an attitude of disbelief from the police and are made to feel as though they are the problem. As a solicitor, I assist victims in compiling dossiers of evidence to present to the police, with a view to increasing the chances of them taking it seriously—or even taking their pens out of their pockets to take a statement. Victims of crimes rarely have to investigate their own cases, unless they are a victim of stalking. 

I believe that the fact that this crime predominantly affects women rather than men is no coincidence. If you consider the types of crime where victims are similarly failed by the criminal justice system—such as sexual assaults, rape and domestic abuse— these are crimes where men are predominantly the perpetrators and women the victims. We have read the Casey report’s findings that the Metropolitan Police is institutionally misogynistic, and the admissions by Police Scotland’s chief constable of his force’s failings, and I have encountered many cases that illustrate the same point. 

Victims are often blamed for the behaviour of the stalker. I have heard the police make countless excuses for them: “he was only coming round to talk about seeing the children” (at 3am); “there is no law to stop him sitting outside your house” (except maybe stalking…); “you responded to his messages” (by telling him to stop making contact). The police also often minimise such behaviour by looking at each incident in isolation, rather than linking the incidents together and seeing the pattern that demonstrates the full impact and risk. 

There are many ways in which the law can be made tougher for stalkers: increasing sentences, toughening up the victims’ code, creating a stalkers register. But for me the main barrier to justice is the attitude of disbelief and the lack of will to investigate. In order to change this, we need those who are found to have failed to investigate stalking cases to see real consequences. Not trivial “words of advice” but officers losing their jobs, their pensions and, in the worst cases, being prosecuted for corporate or gross negligence manslaughter.  

Previous governments have tried introducing tougher laws and sentences, bolder policies, police training; we’ve seen plenty of handwringing and public declarations and that old chestnut of “lessons learned”. It hasn’t changed a thing. The rate of women killed by their ex-partners has been broadly static for a long time, and until officers feel the consequences of their failings directly nothing will change. It’s time women’s lives were valued more highly than (mainly) men’s jobs.