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Harassment

Under the Protection from Harassment Act of 1997 (PHA) harassing someone can be a criminal offence and can give rise to civil action. 

This guide was last updated in July 2015

For more on media law see our guides on defamation, malicious falsehood and misuse of private information.

The PHA creates both civil remedies and a criminal offence where there has been “a course of conduct which amounts to harassment of another” which the defendant “knows or ought to know amounts to harassment”..

Under the PHA an objective test is applied. A person will be deemed to have known that their conduct amounted to harassment “if a reasonable person in possession of the same information would think the course of conduct amounted to or involved harassment of the other”, the PHA says.

What does a claimant need to show?

While “harassment” is not defined in the PHA, it does say that it includes “alarming the person or causing the person distress”. Further guidance was given in a case between Bruce Dowson and others and the Chief Constable of Northumbria. Mr Justice Simon said in that case that a harassment claim will only succeed if:

●      the conduct occurs at least twice;

●      it is targeted at the claimant;

●      it is calculated in an objective sense to cause alarm and distress; and

●      it is objectively judged to be oppressive and unreasonable, which will depend on the context of the conduct.

Mr Justice Simon also suggested that a line should be drawn between conduct that is unattractive and unreasonable and that which can be described as torment of the victim “of an order which would sustain criminal liability”.

In addition to the offence of harassment which causes alarm and distress the PHA also says that a person whose course of conduct causes another to fear, on at least two occasions, that violence will be used against him is guilty of an offence if he knows or ought to know that his course of conduct will cause the other so to fear on each of those occasions.

A prosecution under either section 2 or section 4 of the PHA will only succeed if there is proof of harassment. There must also be evidence to prove the conduct was targeted at an individual and was calculated to alarm or cause that individual distress, and it was oppressive and unreasonable.

Defences

A person accused of harassment has three potential defences: 

  • that their actions were for the purposes of seeking to detect or prevent crime;
  • that they were complying with an enactment or rule of law; or
  • that their actions were reasonable in the circumstances.

Remedies

The remedies available to a claimant for harassment are damages and/or an injunction. Damages can include an award for anxiety caused by the harassment and any resulting financial loss. When considering an application for an injunction, the court will take into account the likelihood of future harassment regardless of prior conduct since the injunction will only be granted where the need for it exists at the day of the hearing. The breach of an injunction for harassment constitutes a criminal offence.  A person found guilty of committing a criminal offence may be imprisoned for a term not exceeding six months, or a fine, or both.

Tactical considerations

While the PHA makes clear that pursuing a course of conduct which amounts to harassment may be both an offence and the subject of a civil claim there are often strong reasons why a claimant might pursue the civil route, not least because the claimant thereby retains control of the situation, rather than handing the matter over to the authorities.