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Harassment Law

Harassment Law

What is Harassment? 

Harassment can take the form of physical, verbal or non verbal conduct which is unwanted by the individual target. Harassment is when someone behaves in a way that makes you feel distressed, humiliated or threatened. It could be someone you know like a neighbor or even a complete stranger.

Examples of harassment range from unwanted phone calls, letters, emails etc to stalking and verbal abuse and threats. It covers a wide range of behaviour which causes you distress or alarm.

Harassment is both a civil and criminal offence which is covered by the Protection from Harassment Act 1997,although the term is not specifically defined. The reason the term is not specified is so it can ensure complete coverage for victims who experience harassment that might not fit within a list of specific categories.

The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 

The introduction of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 created four new criminal offences, including the offence of harassment/stalking and the maximum prison term of five years.

Section 7(2) of the Act states that repeated attempts to impose unwanted communications and contact upon a victim in a manner that could be expected to cause distress or fear in any reasonable person is also covered.

A prosecution under section 2 or 4 of the Act requires proof of harassment. There must also be evidence to prove the conduct was targeted at an individual, was calculated to alarm or cause them distress, and was oppressive and unreasonable.

Civil harassment under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 prohibits a person (or group of persons) from knowingly pursuing a course of harassment of another person (or group of persons).The defendant ought to know if his course of conduct amounts to harassment if a reasonable person in possession of the same information would think the course of conduct amounted to harassment of the other.

A course of conduct is defined as harassment on more than one occasion. The acts complained of should be unwanted and “oppressive and unacceptable”.The Act states that you must have experienced at least two incidents by the same person or group of people for it to be harassment.

The Court of appeal in Roberts v Bank of Scotland Plc (Rev 1) [2013] EWCA Civ 882 (11 June 2013) stated that:

In their daily lives most people regularly interact with friends, colleagues, opponents, acquaintances and strangers. Inevitably not all of these interactions are harmonious. Some cause annoyance and irritation, on occasions considerable annoyance and irritation. These inevitable turbulences of daily life have nothing at all to do with the crime of harassment. In the context of the 1997 Act, “harassment” is both a crime and a civil wrong. It connotes deliberate conduct directed against other people which attains a certain level of severity. Three recent authorities give guidance on the gravity of the conduct which is required to constitute harassment.

In Majrowski v Guy’s and Thomas’s NHS Trust [2006] UKHL 34; [2007] 1 AC 224, a clerical worker claimed damages for harassment by his departmental manager. Both the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords held that an employer could be vicariously liable for harassment by its manager and accordingly the claim should not be struck out. In relation to what constitutes harassment, Lord Nicholls said this at paragraph 30:

“… courts will have in mind that irritations, annoyances, even a measure of upset, arise at times in everybody’s day-to-day dealings with other people. Courts are well able to recognise the boundary between conduct which is unattractive, even unreasonable, and conduct which is oppressive and unacceptable. To cross the boundary from the regrettable to the unacceptable the gravity of the misconduct must be of an order which would sustain criminal liability under section 2.”

Baroness Hale observed that the aim of the 1997 Act was the prevention of harassment in all its forms. At paragraph 66, she continued:

“If this was the aim, it is easy to see why the definition of harassment was left deliberately wide and open-ended. It does require a course of conduct, but this can be shown by conduct on at least two occasions (or since 2005 by conduct on one occasion to each of two or more people): section 7(3). All sorts of conduct may amount to harassment. It includes alarming a person or causing her distress: section 7(2). But conduct might be harassment even if no alarm or distress were in fact caused. A great deal is left to the wisdom of the courts to draw sensible lines between the ordinary banter and badinage of life and genuinely offensive and unacceptable behaviour.”

In Sunderland City Council v Conn [2007] EWCA Civ 1492; [2008] IRLR 324, a paver employed by the Council alleged harassment by his foreman. Two specific incidents were established on the evidence. In the first incident, the foreman lost his temper. He threatened to smash the windows of the site cabin and to report three men to the personnel department. The claimant was one of those three men. The other two men were not bothered by the foreman’s behaviour. In the second incident, the foreman lost his temper again. He threatened to give the claimant “a good hiding” even if that led to the foreman being dismissed.

The Court of Appeal held that the first incident was not serious enough to constitute harassment. The second incident did cross the line, but since more than one incident was required by section 7(3)(a) of the 1997 Act, the claimant’s claim failed. Gage LJ emphasised the importance of the context in which the relevant conduct occurs. At paragraph 12, he said:

“It seems to me that what, in the words of Lord Nicholls in Majrowski, crosses the boundary between unattractive and even unreasonable conduct and conduct which is oppressive and unacceptable, may well depend on the context in which the conduct occurs. What might not be harassment on the factory floor or in the barrack room might well be harassment in the hospital ward and vice versa. In my judgment the touchstone for recognising what is not harassment for the purposes of sections 1 and 3 will be whether the conduct is of such gravity as to justify the sanctions of the criminal law.”

In Ferguson v British Gas Trading Limited [2009] EWCA Civ 46; [2010] 1 WLR 785, the defendant supplied gas to the claimant until 25 May 2006. Thereafter, owing to some technical error, the defendant sent a series of computer generated bills and demands to the claimant for sums which she did not owe. Some letters contained threats to disconnect the claimant’s gas supply and report her to credit rating agencies. The claimant brought a claim for harassment which both Judge Seymour QC and the Court of Appeal refused to strike out.

Jacob LJ accepted that a course of conduct must be grave if it is to constitute the crime or the tort of harassment. He then added these comments in paragraph 18:

“In so accepting I would just add this word of caution: the fact of parallel criminal and civil liability is not generally, outside the particular context of harassment, of significance in considering civil liability. There are a number of other civil wrongs which are also crimes. Perhaps most common would be breaches of the Trade Descriptions Act 1968 as amended. In the field of intellectual property both trade mark and copyright infringement, and the common law tort of passing off (which generally involves deception), may all amount to crimes. It has never been suggested generally that the scope of a civil wrong is restricted because it is also a crime. What makes the wrong of harassment different and special is because, as Lord Nicholls and Lady Hale recognised, in life one has to put up with a certain amount of annoyance: things have got to be fairly severe before the law, civil or criminal, will intervene.”