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Last Updated: Friday, 16 September 2005, 02:42 GMT 03:42 UK
Can dangerous stalkers be tackled?
By Claire Heald
BBC News

Policeman at Harvey Nichols
Clare Bernal was shot dead in a London department store
After a woman is shot dead by a stalker, the BBC News website looks at the laws on harassment and asks if more could have been done to stop the killing.

In the wake of the attack on a shop assistant by her stalker ex-boyfriend, victim support groups have called on the courts to treat such offences more seriously.

Clare Bernal, 22, died in the beauty section of Harvey Nichols, in Knightsbridge, London, on Tuesday night.

She had shared a brief relationship with the killer, former shop security guard Michael Pech, 30.

He was due in court next week to be sentenced for harassing her.

'Potential for tragedy'

Victim support group the Network for Surviving Stalking said adequate laws were already in place - the result of a high profile campaign at the end of the 1990s - but the way the crime was treated remained a problem.

Founder Tracey Morgan said stalking was still not treated seriously enough despite being a "serious crime with a potential for tragedy".

Victims are living, not knowing whether they are going to die today
Tracey Morgan
Network for Surviving Stalking

Domestic violence charity Refuge also stepped into the argument. It criticised the court's decision to grant Pech conditional bail, pending sentence.

Lawyers, however, maintain the justice system takes harassment cases seriously.

There is nothing to be done, they argue, to stop the rare "lunatic" who breaks a court order and kills.

Obsessive behaviour

Harassment is a crime that has increasingly affected ordinary members of the public, as well as celebrities who have brought high-profile cases against their stalkers.

In May, serial stalker Mark Dyche was jailed for life for the murder of Tania Moore.

In July, Andrew Millard was jailed for life for murdering ex-lover Julie Harris, who he had harassed.

The Protection from Harassment Act was introduced in 1997 to prosecute stalkers.

Clare Bernal
Pech harassed Clare Bernal

It deals with conduct on at least two occasions where a person is subjected to persistent and often obsessive behaviour that causes harassment, alarm or distress.

Prosecutions also come under other pieces of legislation that deal with particular aspects of harassment.

For example, assault, rape, racial abuse and malicious calls come under pre-existing laws.

In 2000, the Home Office mooted the introduction of a stalkers register, similar to the sex offender register.

But that plan has been dropped because of practical issues and existing monitoring safeguards.

'Prelude to murder'

Ms Morgan, her organisation and her case were instrumental in bringing about the 1997 legislation.

Her own ordeal lasted for nine years, until her stalker was jailed in 2001 for the attempted murder of another woman.

I am not sure what laws could be passed to stop madmen behaving in this fashion
Robert Roscoe
Solicitor

She said the problem that still exists is that stalking is seen as a minor crime.

"At every opportunity this must be dealt with in a serious way and not [as] a benign crime," she said.

"It's seen as just somebody being a nuisance, and that they should pull themselves together.

"People don't realise that stalking can be a prelude to murder.

Known to victim

"Domestic ex-partner stalking is the most serious and the most dangerous," Ms Morgan said.

In many cases the stalker and victim are known to each other, crime statistics show.

"Lives are devastated... the stalker affects everybody around the victim.

"Victims are living, not knowing whether they are going to die today," Ms Morgan said.

CELEBRITIES STALKED
John Lennon
Catherine Zeta-Jones
Janet Jackson
Mel Gibson
David Beckham

She wants a change in attitude, with courts ensuring restraining orders are adhered to and handing down penalties if they are not.

Plus, she said, the times when people joke, "Aren't you lucky, I wish I had a stalker," are not over.

Findings from the 1998 British Crime Survey showed 2.9% of 16-59-year-olds had experienced persistent and unwanted attention during the preceding year - translating to about 900,000 victims.

Of those, women were the more likely targets: 550,000 were subject to or feared violence; and 70% changed their lifestyle as a result.

Thousands of prosecutions and convictions have followed the 1997 law.

The most recent figures from the government's Criminal Statistics for England and Wales show that in 2003, 5,640 prosecutions were dealt with in magistrates' courts.

Of those, 4,884 defendants were men, 756 women. Of the 2,810 convictions, 2,500 were men, 310 women.

Headline cases

After these thousands of cases, lawyers argue harassment and stalking are taken gravely seriously.

But solicitor Robert Roscoe told the BBC News website that it is impossible to legislate for the rare cases where "madmen" break restraining orders.

"The laws are there, you are not allowed to harass, stalk, carry firearms," he said.

"This government has done its best to introduce the appropriate acts.

"People who are determined to break the law - these cases that hit the headlines - are generally few and far between.

"I am not sure what laws could be passed to stop madmen behaving in this fashion."

Nothing, he said, could be done to stop a "lunatic" who promised one thing to the judge and his own lawyers to secure bail, but who then did another.

SEE ALSO
Man jailed for murdering ex-lover
04 Jul 05 |  Gloucestershire
'Evil' man obsessed with revenge
12 May 05 |  Derbyshire

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