(Updated April 2016)
From the Mail on Sunday:
There were calls last night for the head of an anti-stalking charity to be investigated after her ‘outrageous’ claims that a former male colleague had stalked her were dropped.
Laura Richards, chief executive of Paladin, National Stalking Advocacy Service, accused former co-director Harry Fletcher, 69, of plaguing her ‘with up to 50 phone calls a day’.
The married family man – a leading criminal justice expert – endured 15 months of torment during which he was interviewed under caution and his professional life was placed on hold.
But as the Crown Prosecution Service dropped the case due to lack of evidence last week, former MP Elfyn Llwyd, who led reform of stalking laws, called for the Charity Commission to investigate Ms Richards.
Richards’s complaint against Fletcher was first reported in the same newspaper just over a year ago, and both articles include comments from professional peers about Richards that are not to her credit. A second report from February 2015 also raised concerns about how the Paladin Service was being run: Comic Relief had suspended a grant, caseworkers had resigned, and the long-established Suzy Lamplugh Trust had stopped making referrals to the organization, complaining that cases weren’t being picked up.
The 2015 articles were a surprise: the Paladin Service, which had been launched at the House of Lords in 2013, enjoyed widespread goodwill for its efforts on behalf of individuals who were being victimised by stalking, and Richards was a frequent media commentator on the subject. However, as we saw with Kids’ Company last summer, just because an organisation has laudable aims, that does not mean that all is well, or that a media-savvy and plausible CEO who may indeed have given real assistance to individuals in need ought to escape critical scrutiny.
Once again, this is not the kind of subject that I anticipated getting into when I started this blog, but this is where various chains of connection have led me. I have two concerns here: (1) in general, that advocacy on behalf of genuine victims is tipping over into the uncritical promotion of unsubstantiated (and even malicious) accusations; and (2) in particular, that it should be recalled that Richards was instrumental in promoting and giving credibility to false accusations of stalking by a politician with a grudge.
Starting with the latter point, I first became aware of Richards in the early autumn of 2014, when she provided quotes for a Telegraph feature with the sensationalizing headline “Stalkers: Why Career Women are their New Targets“. That piece was by Radhika Sanghani, and it complemented a softball interview with Nadine Dorries MP, who regularly deploys spiteful and false accusations of stalking in order to discourage and harass critics of her performance as a public figure. Richards’s punditry served up a diagnosis that saved Sanghani the bother of actually fact-checking various assertions that Dorries had made in her interview and in a lurid feature for the Mail on Sunday‘s Femail section (background here; I am a friend of the person Dorries was smearing).
According to Sanghani’s account:
[Richards] explains that often a professional, successful woman can be a target for a stalker, especially if they – or their work – appears in the public domain. It means that the stalker can criticise them, perhaps through a blog like Dorries’ does, and appear to have legitimate concerns.
But Richards was not just a disinterested analyst – by advocating for Dorries she was also working to raise her own media profile. Indeed, the fact that Dorries, Richards and a second complainant mentioned in Sanghani’s article soon afterwards appeared together at a public seminar on the subject of stalking indicates that the author was primarily facilitating a media strategy. It seemed to me that we were also moving into moral panic territory. The problem of online stalking and abuse is real enough, and in the autumn of 2014 it was high on the media’s agenda (a man was standing trial at this time for sending threatening texts to Stella Creasy MP, and he was subsequently jailed) – but Richards was here claiming to be able to effect the discoverie of stalking through some sort of special expert discernment.
My sceptical impression has been strengthened by a strange statement which Richards has issued in response to the new Mail on Sunday article, in which she exhorts us to ask: “who does this article benefit? Who is the actual source of this disinformation?” The answer, presumably, is that it benefits stalkers, who wish to to discredit Richards. One might have hoped that that kind of rhetorical move went out with McCarthy, but it has proven depressingly resilient.
Perhaps inevitably, Richards also raises the currently fashionable spectre of “victim blaming”. She doesn’t properly explain what she means here, but these days the phrase is commonly used against anyone who suggests that a person accused of certain crimes, particularly against women or children, might in fact be innocent (as noted last month by Dan Hodges, in an article about the Met’s bungled historical CSA investigations). We must “believe the victim”, not look for evidence.
The Crown Prosecution Service
Richards states that the CPS chose not to prosecute “the stalker” because “his behaviour is mirrored when he interacts with others [and] they felt a jury may struggle with the context”. She also claims that “for a case to get as far as being referred to the CPS means there is substantial information and evidence worthy or being assessed in the first place”, and notes that it took “almost two years”. One wonders why we ever bother with trials at all, if a referral to the CPS from the police essentially means “no smoke without fire”, and the longer it takes for the CPS to come to a decision is demonstrative of guilt.
For a long time, Paladin has heavily promoted the idea that stalkers are getting away with it because the CPS lacks understanding of current legislation (Paladin can offer training, naturally). I certainly wouldn’t want to assume CPS competence, but Paladin’s main talking point here has been less than honest. In April 2015, an article appeared in the Independent on Sunday under the headline “Compulsory training on tackling stalkers came in two years ago – but over a quarter of CPS lawyers have yet to attend”. The article included commentary from Richards, and it appears to have been produced to explain why the case brought by the second complainant in Sanghani’s 2014 Telegraph article had also failed.
But the thesis was self-evidently false: “over a quarter of CPS lawyers have yet to attend” means that nearly 75% have attended. Given the range of cases that pass through the CPS’s inbox, surely that ought to be enough to be getting on with? Paladin further sensationalized the story on Twitter by linking to it but claiming that “only 1 in 4 CPS lawyers are trained”. Perhaps this was an honest muddle, but inverting the percentage served the organization’s interest. And either way, it does not inspire confidence.
Richards previously worked as a behavioural analyst for the Association of Chief Police Officers’ (ACPO’s) homicide working group, and the Paladin Service had a formal information sharing agreement with ACPO, which I understand has been carried over to the new National Police Chiefs’ Council.
Dorries made a complaint of her own to police in 2013, by her own account after having received an anonymous “tip-off” about stalking by email. The context makes it obvious that this was actually a malicious message from someone wanting to manipulate Dorries for his own purposes (not that she’s ever complained about being so used), and the complaint in due course folded.
Now for a bit of inside information that was passed to me: a confidant of hers (Dennis Rice, aka “Tabloidtroll” – ironically, a man with a real history of aggressive online trolling and harassment, including attacks on me, among many others) soon afterwards sent a goading and triumphal email to a third party in which he boasted that “a further criminal case is being prepared by ACPO”.*
It’s not clear why he thought this, and in fact nothing came of it, but its reasonable to assume he thought that the Paladin Service somehow had the power to make this happen. Where did he get that idea from?
Richards’s statement includes the statement that she is not surprised by the outcome because “only 1% of stalkers [are] being prosecuted under the new law”. The Paladin website explains this further:
In 2013/14 CPS figures reveal that 743 stalking offences were prosecuted whereas 9,792 were prosecuted for harassment out of the 61 175 allegations recorded by police. Therefore only 1% of cases of stalking and 16% of cases of harassment recorded by the police result in a charge and prosecution by the CPS.
This seems to me to be confused and sensationalising, for several reasons.
First, the figure of 61,175 refers to allegations of harassment and stalking combined. It makes no sense to talk of “1% of cases of stalking and 16% of cases of harassment” when we don’t know how many of the 61,175 allegations relate to the former or to the latter. Further, it is innumerate to calculate both percentages by extrapolating from “743” and “9,792” to the same overall total. If 9,792 is 16% of harassment cases, then there are 61,200 harassment cases overall, which accounts for all the 61,175 allegations without leaving any over to give to stalking. And if 743 is 1% of stalking cases, then there have been 74,300 stalking cases. We need to more than double the “61,175” figure for Paladin’s percentages to be valid.
Second, the author very tellingly conflates “allegations recorded” with “offences”. Many complaints received will not have gone forward to the CPS in the first place. There are various reasons for this: some complaints will have been invalid (even if the complainant feels genuinely aggrieved), and some complaints will founder due to lack of evidence. Some complaints may be resolved via a formal police caution, in which an offence is admitted, or via an informal notification to a suspect about an allegation having been received against them (although these “harassment warnings”, which do not require any police investigation, are sometimes misused by vexatious complainants).
And third – how many of those prosecutions were actually successful anyway? Are we to infer a 100% conviction rate?
A new report on stalking law, by Alex Chalk and Richard Graham MPs, has some rather more useful figures:
In the year ending June 2015, the police recorded 93,423 harassment complaints and 3,179 stalking complaints. Prosecutions were commenced for 12,122 harassment and stalking offences in 2014-15; this is a rise of 1,587 offences (15.1%) from 2013-14. Of these, there were 1,103 prosecutions commenced under the new stalking offences (nearly 50% rise compared to 2014). Of those, only 427 related to the more serious offence of stalking (section 4A) which carries a maximum 5 year sentence if convicted.
This suggests that around one in three stalking complaints leads to prosecutions “under the new stalking offences”, rather than just 1%, and that just under one in six prosecutions are “related to the more serious offence of stalking”, which relates to fear of violence and/or a high (“serious”) level of “alarm or distress”. Further, we also have to factor in that some cases that might be regarded as either harassment or stalking will have been dealt with satisfactorily under the older harassment laws (see below for more on this).
Of course, such statistics always gloss over qualitative differences between individual cases; but whichever way we look at it, we can be sure that Richards’s complaint did not fail because, as she infers, 99% of stalkers get away with it.
Secret Barrister has written an interesting and well-informed post about the stalking legislation, which is of some relevance to the above:
What is stalking, you ask? Well here’s the clever bit. Stalking is…”a course of conduct which amounts to harassment…and [where] the acts or omissions involved are ones associated with stalking“. To inject some colour into the dull circularity of the definition, section 2A(3) provides “examples of acts or omissions associated with stalking”. In other words, you need to prove that the defendant is guilty of both harassment and stalking, in order to convict them of stalking. Therefore proving stalking is by definition harder for the prosecution than simply proving harassment.
… If prosecutions for stalking under section 2A are indeed few and far between (and actually, it appears that the numbers are growing), it strikes me as plausible that the prosecuting authorities are doing the sensible thing, and diverting “stalking” complaints into prosecutions for harassment, improving the chances of obtaining a conviction and the resultant protections (such as a restraining order) that the court can offer.
*Less than 24 hours after posting above, I received a communication from Rice, in which he threatened to damage my employment prospects. See details here.
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