The underuse of the new stalking laws are leaving women at risk of violence, a leading campaigner has warned.
Laura Richards, chief executive of the Paladin National Stalking Advocacy Service, warned that victims are being left at risk of violence as the new laws are being underused by CPS lawyers who have not had sufficient training.
Ms Richards also warned that "light-touch sentences" and a "revolving-door approach" means victims are more at risk of being killed by their stalkers and that charging "cheaper and easier-to-prove" offences such as harassment means the offender's fixation goes untreated.
Elfyn Llwyd MP, who led a parliamentary inquiry on stalking, accused prosecutors of "undercharging" and called for a change in culture in the CPS and police, claiming stalking is too often treated as a domestic issue.
The Plaid Cymru Westminster leader said charging lesser offences often ends with a "slap on the wrist" and do provide justice for victims.
"We need to so make sure prosecutors take this very serious offence as they should because it is a considerable area of concern." Llywd said.
The Crown Prosecution Service has been accused of letting down stalking victims after official figures showed 743 such cases were brought before the courts last year.
CPS figures showed more than a quarter of cases in 2013-14 involved the more serious offences of stalking involving fear of violence (65) and stalking involving serious alarm or distress (149), with 529 for the lesser offence of stalking.
But campaigners, whose calls for the new stalking offences were realised in the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, described the figures as disappointing.
They warned that victims are being left at risk of violence as the CPS charges offenders with lesser offences that are easier to prosecute but mean the stalker's fixation continues.
A Home Office spokesman has said it works with police and prosecutors to ensure the new stalking law is properly enforced, although it is up to chief constables to make sure their officers are trained.
Stalking is an appalling crime which destroys lives and the Government is sending a clear message that those responsible should be brought to justice.
We are working with the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to ensure the new stalking offences are being used appropriately. Our new laws will help stop people living in fear and prevent escalation to more serious violence.
Stalking became a crime in England and Wales for the first time in November 2012, with two specific new offences introduced:
- The first is dealt with by magistrates only, and applies where a person is accused of targeting someone in a course of conduct that amounts to stalking, and involves a maximum jail term of six months
- The second, more serious offence, can be heard either by magistrates or in a crown court, and applies where someone is accused of causing a person fear of violence or serious alarm or distress. This can mean a jail term of up to five years.
The latest figures on stalking arrests and charging are disappointing but not surprising, the Co-director of the national stalking advocacy said today, after it showed that only a "fraction" of stalkers had been convicted.
Harry Fletcher of Paladin said:
The number convicted so far is 10% of those arrested and a fraction of all women stalked.
They illustrate the need for comprehensive training of all criminal justice professionals. Victims must have confidence in the justice system if they are to come forward.
A "fraction" of stalkers have been convicted since it was made a criminal offence and police and prosecutors need better training in dealing with the crime, an advice service has said.
Figures obtained under a freedom of information request showed that between November 2012, when stalking became a crime, and the end of June this year, 320 people were arrested across 30 police forces.
Of those 189 were charged - so far six of those have been jailed and 27 given community disposals.
Labour's shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper has welcomed the government's move to make stalking a crime.
Cooper said the move should help the criminal justice system crack down on the offence.
She said: "We campaigned hard for this new law against stalking and I am glad that the government accepted our reforms and listened to the victims who have been so determined and brave in speaking out after enduring terrible distress and abuse.
"Victims deserve swift justice and protection from the law - hopefully stalking becoming a criminal offence in its own right will help courts and the criminal justice system focus more quickly and effectively on stopping this crime."
Crime prevention minister Jeremy Browne says the introduction of new legislation making stalking a criminal offence will stop the issue being "brushed under the carpet".
Speaking on BBC Breakfast, he said:
It is the sort of offence that people can sometimes brush under the carpet, not be aware of, it has been trivialised sometimes, I think, in the past as something which is just people, mainly women, being a bit bothered but nothing to worry about too much.
This is a very serious problem which affects thousands of thousands of mainly women, not exclusively women, but mainly women, right across the country.
Victims and Equalities Minister Helen Grant said creating new stalking offences will ensure "victims of this heinous crime are better protected and will bring more offenders to justice".
Ms Grant said:
The Government's ambition is nothing less than ending all forms of violence against women and girls.
But we must also ensure that if people's lives are affected by crime, the right kind of help or support is available.
For the first time we have made sure nearly £40 million of Central Government funding is in place for organisations that do so much to help victims, often with so little.