Is harassment a crime
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Is harassment a crime or a civil wrongdoing
Harassment comes in different shapes and forms. Harassment might present itself as stalking, threats, breaches of privacy, breaches of personal data, online business reviews or social media posts, or exchanges of messages.
Harassment is both a civil wrongdoing and a criminal offence. This means that harassment, in most ways it presents itself can be handled by the police through the criminal court or by an individual or their lawyer through the civil court. The criminal courts can send the harasser to prison and a conviction in the criminal court will result in a criminal record. When someone is found guilty of harassment in a civil court, the maximum that can be done to them is imposing a fine and restraining them from continuing to harass their victim. If the harasser persists with their harassment, despite having been restrained by the civil court, the civil court judge can then send the harasser to prison for contempt of court.
You can harass someone even if the information you publish about them is completely true. With harassment, it matters less whether the information published by the harasser is true or false. What matters more is that the publication is of a harassing nature and that the publication of the harassing posts is not in the public interest. It is very rare that an ongoing online campaign against an individual will be considered in the public interest. It is even rarer that the publication of private information about an individual, as part of a campaign of harassment will be considered in the public interest.
Obtaining a restraining order through the criminal court could take a long time as the police need to first carry out a thorough investigation to gather evidence that would prove beyond reasonable doubt your harasser's guilt. The criminal justice system will then need to accommodate a potential trial date and this could take many months. At the end of the trial, even if the defendant is found not guilty, the criminal court can still put in place a restraining order that will prevent the harasser from harassing the victim. A breach of a restraining order is a separate criminal offence that carries a prison sentence. It is often easier to bring a successful prosecution for breach of a restraining order than for harassment.
The process of going through the criminal justice system is entirely free. It is not possible to bring a claim for breach of privacy or to claim for damages for losses the victim had incurred because of the harassment, through the criminal courts. In cases of harassing online publications, the police are reluctant to react.
Whether the police decide to visit the harasser and ask them to take down harassing posts or images will often depend on the police force and even on the approach of the individual police officer who is assigned the case. If the harasser has already removed the harassing posts or images, the police will be even less likely to pay them a visit. You could contact the police and ask them to visit the harasser but based on our experience, the likelihood of the police being effective in providing victims of online harassment with an effective solution, without having a lawyer involved in the matter, is low.
Harassment is a crime. If the police refuse to investigate your complaint about online harassment, for whatever reason, you should not be disheartened. Often victims of online harassment are told that because there was no physical threat, there was nothing the police could do to help. This typical advice by the police is often wrong and it leaves the victim with little choice but to take responsibility for resolving the situation themselves.
If the police refuse to investigate your harassment case, you can force a review of the decision and in many cases, victims of harassment do this successfully. You can exercise your right to have a review of the police’ decision under the Right to Review Scheme.
Our general advice to victims of harassment is to continue to pursue the matter with the police and the CPS, all the way to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) if needed. Perseverance often pays in these types of circumstances. Be aware that for all of the above, there are various time limits, so we advise you to act as promptly as possible and without any delay.
A civil injunction for harassment can be obtained much quicker. It means, however, that we will need to have your case fully prepared from the outset, to ensure the best likelihood of success within the shortest possible period of time. This could often be done within days or weeks. A civil injunction can also be obtained together with an application for anonymity, to protect the applicant.
Together with a case for harassment, it is possible (and often advisable) to bring simultaneous claims for breach of privacy, misuse of private information and breach of confidence. I will be able to further advise you on the merits and prudence of bringing each of these claims once I have analysed the evidence and prepared your witness statement.