Stalking devastates many lives and as MPs call for a register to monitor stalkers, the mother of murdered 24-year-old Alice Ruggles and Claire*, who has been stalked for 16 years talk to Marie Claire
It’s breathtaking to think stalking was not criminalised in the UK until 2012, and it’s equally breathtaking to realise there is, as yet, no way of keeping track of serial offenders. Stalkers who make thousands of women’s lives miserable and, stalkers who have gone on to snuff out the lives of innocent women. It’s a heartbreaking and utterly frustrating state of affairs.
But now, there’s a new hope with a proposed amendment to the domestic abuse bill finally making its way through Parliament. Thanks to a cross-party group of MPs calling for stalkers and serial domestic abusers to be registered and monitored in the same way as serious violent and sexual offenders.
Time to save lives
Stalking is a much more common crime than you might imagine – more than one in five women aged 16-59 has been a victim of stalking, according to the Crime Survey for England and Wales. Stalking was a factor in 94 per cent of female homicide at the hands of men, according to the College of Policing. It’s no exaggeration to say that a register would save lives.
The amendment to the bill for England and Wales would put stalking offenders and serial domestic abusers on the violent and sex offender register called Visor (a database of those required to register with the police under the 2003 Sexual Offences Act, those jailed for more than 12 months for violent offences and those thought to be at risk of offending). Those on the register would also be under Mappa, a coordinated arrangement between agencies responsible for managing an offender in the community.
The proposed addition, tabled by Labour’s Yvette Coopper is designed to help authorities ‘join the dots’. To identify serial stalkers and abusers of women and prevent them from committing more crimes. To prevent tragedies, because violence rarely exists in isolation.
‘Domestic abuse and stalking destroy lives,’ said Cooper. ‘There are too many heartbreaking stories of people who have suffered terribly or even lost their lives as a result of domestic abuse or stalking by someone who had committed similar atrocious crimes before.’
Let’s hope the proposed amendment is successful as there are too many heartbreaking stories of women killed. Women such as 24-year Alice Ruggles who was murdered in 2016, by an ex-boyfriend following a relentless campaign of stalking. Journalist Lizzy Dening speaks to her mother, Sue Hills and also to Claire* who has lived under the spectre of stalking for 16 years.
‘I want justice for 16 years of fear’
Claire* had an abusive five-year relationship with a man at 17. Now 33, she’s still having to hide from him. ‘I had my nose broken, I had my jaw knocked out of place, I’ve lost teeth, fractures in my toes, my fingers, my wrists, problems with my knees, where he’d smash weights on my kneecaps and hold me down.
‘The relationship ended when he beat me up for three hours, locked me in his house, tried to hang me and then dug a hole in the backyard. He told me I was going in whether I was dead or alive.’
The following years have seen her snatched from the street and locked in his car, the intimidation of her family in public places, and hounding her via social media.
Overall, she estimates, she’s been to the police 15 times. ‘He’s been diagnosed with schizophrenia and a personality disorder. So he gets away with quite a lot of stuff. And they use this as an excuse, I think. I went to the police the last time in 2017, after he sent me a Facebook message, and it really put me off so I didn’t go back.
‘The police said, “he’s not threatened you, there’s nothing we can do.” But this person is contacting me and it’s causing me distress. He’s saying he’s found out all this information about me, and he’s constantly tried to look for me and find information. He’s been so abusive to me in the past. And yet, you’re saying you can do nothing about it until he actually does something. There’s just no justice.’
The impact of all of this, as you’d imagine, has been extreme. She estimates she spends 95 per cent of her life in fear. ‘I’ll always look over my shoulder, if I’m in a room I stay at the back so I can see who’s in the room around me. If my work says ‘can we put a picture up of you on the website?’ I’d rather not – it affects everything. I’m quite a private person, but obviously, when you’re getting into a relationship, I don’t want to lie to the person for their own safety. I tell them about my past relationship because I do have someone who is potentially very dangerous. I’ve been diagnosed with PTSD because of what happened to me.’
While many stalking victims have, sadly, had similar experiences with police, since Claire’s experience, police training overseen by the College of Policing has been improved and updated to reflect the gravity of the crime, and new measures have been brought in this year.
‘Stalking Protection Orders (SPO) have been introduced in England and Wales as an additional tool to give stalking victims immediate protection while the police carry out a criminal investigation into allegations of stalking. A breach of an SPO is a criminal offence that could lead to a five year prison sentence,’ says Sharon Stratton, Head of Public Protection at the College of Policing.
Stalking advocacy service Paladin have expressed concerns that the orders might be used instead of prosecutions, but for Sue Hills, the mother of Alice Ruggles, who was murdered by her stalker in 2016, the new Orders are a move in the right direction. In fact, she believes that the weight of a SPO might have led to Alice’s stalker being arrested.
Alice’s stalker was instead issued a Police Information Notice (PIN) – a bit like a caution – but under the new system might have been given a SPO. ‘That PIN had no weight at all. She was told that him breaking the PIN would lead to him being arrested, but you can’t arrest someone for that,’ says Sue. ‘So that as soon as Alice rang up, which she did, and said ‘he’s contacted me’, he could have been arrested under a Stalking Protection Order.’
The SPOs could also be useful for protecting the victim during the period when the police are gathering evidence, says Sue, who runs the Alice Ruggles Trust, providing education, training and advice around stalking. ‘They could have used that time to download Alice’s phone, to look at the letters he’d sent her, to talk to her friends and family about the effect that was having on her. Whilst at the same time giving some protection to the victim, because Alice was essentially unprotected.’
While the protection orders are, in Sue’s opinion, a step in the right direction, it’s still an exhausting journey to justice for most victims. ‘It’s like an obstacle course, if the police believe you then they’ve got to investigate, and then the CPS have to be convinced and then the CPS have got to take it to court and then the jury or magistrate has to be convinced. It’s such a hard process to get through all those things, and stalking victims are generally in a really, really bad place.’
‘We must stop failing women’
But while reporting may feel like an uphill struggle, it’s the only way to ensure your safety in the long-term. ‘It is important that people know that stalking is against the law and that the police have the power to punish a stalker even if they haven’t caused any physical harm to the victim – after all, just because they haven’t been violent in the past, doesn’t mean they won’t be violent in the future,’ says Stratton.
‘Similarly, it is important to reiterate to victims that they should never hesitate to report stalking – their safety and wellbeing, both physical and emotional, should be the top priority to both them and the police.’
Meanwhile, it’s up to us to ensure that victims have a safe space to talk about their experiences. ‘It is important that obsessive and fixated behaviours are not romanticised and that we don’t make light of people who express concerns about someone following them, sending them unwanted messages or gifts,’ says Sharon.
Meanwhile as the bill and its life-changing proposed amendment is currently under scrutiny at the committee stage, Laura Richards, founder of the Paladin told The Guardian: ‘I have worked on many cases over the years and the same failures, same patterns repeat. The lessons are never learned.
‘Women are being spectacularly failed every day. It is systemic failure and we need urgent law and culture change to focus on the perpetrator’s behaviour.
‘I strongly urge the government to look at the evidence base of hundreds of women and girls who have been abused, terrorised, raped and murdered by serial domestic violence offenders and stalkers who were allowed to offend with impunity and ensure this important amendment is supported in the domestic abuse bill. This will save lives.’
* For help and support with stalking visit alicerugglestrust.org or call the National Stalking Helpline on: 0808 802 0300
Additional words: Maria Coole