The section 2 harassment offence and section 2A stalking offence are summary only offences, which means that they are tried in the Magistrates’ Court.
Summary offences require an information or complaint to be laid within 6 months from the time when the offence was committed, or the matter of complaint arose. The 6 months limitation should run from the last date of the course of conduct alleged.
The section 4 harassment (fear of violence) and section 4 A stalking (fear of violence/serious alarm and distress) offences are triable either way. A defendant may have their trial in the Magistrates’ Court or elect to be tried in the Crown Court, in front of a jury.
Cases in the Magistrates’ Court are decided by a District Judge or Lay Magistrates. Lay Magistrates are trained part time volunteers from the community. They do not require formal legal training as they are advised by the Court Legal Advisor. They sit as either two or three together. District Judges are qualified lawyers and sit alone, although they still have a Court Legal Adviser present to assist them if necessary.
After the decision to prosecute an indictment (properly particularising he harassment) will be drawn up and placed before a Magistrate. A summons will be sent out. This will provide a date for a first appearance.
The first appearance will take place at a Magistrates’ court. The defendant will be asked to confirm their personal details. The charge will be read out by the Court Legal Adviser and the defendant will state if they are pleading Guilty or Not Guilty.
If a Guilty plea is entered, the prosecution will read out details of the offence and any convictions held by the defendant. The defence advocate will then address the court and mitigate on behalf of the defendant. Sentencing may be carried out there and then or deferred, pending court reports.
If a Not Guilty Plea is entered the court will set a date for trial.
If the offence is triable either way, a defendant who pleads guilty, may still be sent to the Crown Court for sentence, if the Magistrates consider that their sentencing powers are insufficient to deal with the case.
If a defendant pleads not guilty or gives no indication to an either way offence, the Magistrates will again consider if they have sufficient sentencing powers to deal with the matter if the defendant is found guilty. If they consider their powers are sufficient, the defendant is then offered the choice of having their trial heard in the Magistrates’ Court or in the Crown Court, for a trial by jury.
The case is then adjourned for the Crown Prosecution Service to prepare the papers for trial. There may be further administrative hearings in the Magistrates Court when the papers are ready. The case is then ready to be sent to the Crown Court. There will be a number of hearings at the Crown Court to set a trial date and to ensure the CPS and the defence can be ready for the trial, and ensure their witnesses are able to attend and evidence is properly disclosed and exchanged.
Where a defendant has a Magistrates Court trial, either Lay Magistrates or a District Judge will hear the evidence and make a decision.
In a Crown Court, a jury will consider the evidence and come to a decision.
If a defendant is found not guilty, the matter may not come to an end. For harassment cases a restraining order can still be imposed even if the defendant is found not guilty.
If the defendant is found guilty, the court / Judge will move to sentence the defendant.
A conviction for harassment under section 2 of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 carries a maximum of six month’s imprisonment and /or a level 5 fine (summary only offence).
A conviction for stalking under section 2A of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 carries a maximum of six month’s imprisonment and /or a level 5 fine (summary only offence).
A conviction for harassment (fear of violence) under section 4 of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 carries a maximum of five year’s imprisonment and /or a fine on indictment (either way offence).
A conviction for stalking (fear of violence/serious alarm or distress) under section 4A of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 carries a maximum of five year’s imprisonment and /or a fine on indictment (either way offence).
The Crown prosecution service have published detailed legal guidance on stalking and harassment.
The rules governing procedure in the criminal Court are the Criminal Procedure Rules.