Harassment and stalking
Harassment and stalking are classed as offences under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 and (where the offending is racially or religiously aggravated) the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. Both offences relate to behaviour that is repeated and unwanted.
Harassment is behaviour intended to cause a person alarm or distress. The behaviour must occur on more than one occasion but it does not have the be the same kind of behaviour on each occasion. Common harassment incidents include:
- texts, voicemails, letters or emails
- comments or threats
- standing outside someone’s house or driving past it
Harassment involving putting people in fear of violence is a more serious offence. It involves two or more harassment incidents that leave the victim fearing that violence will be used against them.
Stalking involves persistently following someone. It does not necessarily mean following them in person and can include watching, spying or forcing contact with the victim through any means, including through social media.
Stalking involving fear of violence or serious alarm or distress is a more serious offence. It involves two or more occasions that have caused the victim to fear violence will be used against them or had a substantial adverse effect on their day-to-day activities, even where the fear is not explicitly of violence. Evidence that the stalking has caused this level of fear could include the victim:
- changing their route to work, work patterns or employment to avoid contact with the stalker
- putting additional home security measures in place
- moving home
- suffering physical or mental ill-health
For both harassment and stalking, the offence is more serious if it is racially or religiously motivated, that is carried out because of someone’s racial or ethnic origin or their religion or lack of religion.
Parliament sets the maximum (and sometimes minimum) penalty for any offence. When deciding the appropriate sentence, the court must follow any relevant sentencing guidelines, unless it is not in the interests of justice to do so.
What is the maximum sentence for harassment or stalking?
If the offence is harassment or stalking:
- the maximum sentence is six months’ custody
- if racially or religiously aggravated, the maximum sentence is two years’ custody
If the offence is harassment (putting people in fear of violence) or stalking (involving fear of violence or serious alarm or distress):
- the maximum sentence is 10 years’ custody
- if racially or religiously aggravated, the maximum sentence is 14 years’ custody
Find out more about the different types of sentence the courts can impose.
How is the sentence worked out?
Sentences are calculated by an assessment of culpability and harm.
Culpability is a measure of how responsible the offender was for the harassment or stalking. An indicator of high culpability would be if the harassment was sophisticatedly planned. An indicator of lesser culpability would be if the harassment was limited in scope and did not last for long.
Harm is a measure of the distress caused to the victim as a result of the harassment or stalking. This could be evidenced by the victim having to make considerable changes to their lifestyle.
Aggravating factors may increase the severity of the sentence. Examples include:
- the offender has relevant previous convictions
- the victim is particularly vulnerable
- particularly violent or offensive material formed part of the harassment
- the harassment or stalking had an impact on others, particularly children
- the offender used child contact arrangements to commit the offence
Mitigating factors may decrease the severity of the sentence. Examples include where the offender:
- has shown remorse
- is of good character
- has a serious medical condition
- has a mental disorder or learning disability
- is the sole or primary carer for dependent relatives
- has demonstrated that they are taking steps to address their offending behaviour
If the defendant pleads guilty, they will also receive a reduced sentence.
You can find out more about how sentences for harassment and stalking are calculated depending on the offence type. See the sentencing guidelines for:
- Harassment (putting people in fear of violence)
- Stalking (involving fear of violence or serious alarm or distress)
- Sentencing guidelines for use in magistrates’ courts
- Sentencing guidelines for use in the Crown Court
- Research and resources
- Sentencing Council consultations
- News and articles
- You be the Judge – an interactive guide to sentencing
- Going to court
- Crime, justice and the law on GOV.UK
- Sources of legal advice
The information on this page is not a complete legal analysis of the offences and is not a substitute for legal advice. The law will be different in Scotland and Northern Ireland.