New Stalking Bill will take zero tolerance approach to domestic and sexual violence

Campaigners for anti-stalking legislation Una Ring and Eve McDowell at Government Buildings. Photo: Gareth Chaney

Senan Molony

New laws mean a single incident of oppression could be deemed stalking by the courts, potentially earning the offender a 10-year jail sentence.

Justice Minister Helen McEntee hopes to have enacted new legislation by the summer that would mean a conviction for stalking could be secured without having to establish a repeated pattern.

Killing or injuring pets would also be a stalking offence under the legislation. Attacks on animals were previously treated as damaging a person’s possessions but the new law would treat it as an emotional assault.

The new stalking provisions cover any conduct that puts someone in fear or causes serious alarm and distress.

Meanwhile, non-fatal strangulation, often seen in domestic violence cases and sometimes a precursor to murder, will be punishable by up to life in prison.

Una Ring, founder of the support group Stalking Ireland, said as a dog owner she had been afraid her abuser would give poisoned meat to her pets. “I know of it happening, and I have heard of pets being stabbed or deliberately run over,” she said at Government Buildings, where she welcomed the moves.

Last year, Ms Ring’s former work colleague James Steele (52) was jailed for five years for stalking and harassment. When he was arrested during a special surveillance operation on Ms Ring’s home, he was found to be carrying a crowbar, duct tape and rope.

Under the new legislation, courts will be able to issue restraining orders against stalking behaviour more easily. Victims will have a lower burden of proof, supported by garda opinion evidence. This will allow faster access to the courts.

The minister said it would allow victims of stalking to “feel safe”.

Breach of an order would carry a maximum of a year’s imprisonment. It could also be the basis for a criminal prosecution for stalking, which will cover any persistent conduct – not just following, watching or approaching.

Non-fatal strangulation will be prosecuted as a new and serious offence, even with no obvious signs of injury. Where strangulation causes serious harm, the maximum penalty will be life imprisonment.

“We know non-fatal strangling can be indicative of future, lethal violence,” Ms McEntee said.

“It’s a risk factor for homicides against women in the home. It’s highly prevalent in domestic abuse, and is frequently accompanied by threats to kill. It is hoped this new offence will encourage victims to come forward and report what has happened.”

Research suggests non-fatal strangulation increases the ultimate risk of death sevenfold. Internationally, strangulation is the second-most common method of killing women, after stabbing.

Studies report that even where there is little to no visible injury, longer-term physical effects include internal bleeding, dizziness and loss of memory. Psychological outcomes include depression, anxiety, suicidality and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The under-charging of asphyxiation cases has been identified in several countries.

“The Government’s overall goal is to achieve zero tolerance when it comes to domestic sexual and gender-based violence,” Ms McEntee said. “What’s really important is that we have clear and strong laws, and that we make sure that victims know that they can come forward and will be supported.

“We are seeing the devastating impact that stalking can have on people in our communities. The evidence shows that people are more likely to report cases when it is a distinct offence.”

Fianna Fáil senator Lisa Chambers worked closely with the minister on the new legislation, drawn up in liaison with victims and the Stalking Ireland group.