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  • Rai Gill

What is Harassment?


The offences relating to harassment are covered by the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. No specific definition is actually given as to what “harassment” means, but case law and the Act itself provide for two main offences:

  • The lesser offence of simple harassment (sections 1 and 2 of the Act); and

  • The more serious offence of harassment which causes fear of violence to another (section 4 of the Act).

The Offences

In order for a person to be found guilty of the offence of harassment under section 2, the Prosecution would need to prove the following:

  1. That the defendant pursued a course of conduct against another;

  2. This conduct amounted to harassment; and

  3. The defendant ought to have known that this conduct amounted to harassment.

Where the Prosecution have alleged the more serious offence under section 4, they will also need to prove that the defendant’s course of conduct which amounted to harassment:

  1. Caused the another to fear that violence would be used against them; and

  2. That the defendant ought to have known that his conduct would have cause another to fear violence.


In order to understand what this all means, we need to look at the definitions of the important phrases.

Course of conduct – this where a person says or does something on two or more occasions against another person.

Ought to have known – this is an objective test, where a judge or jury must decide whether a reasonable person who had been in the same situation, knowing the same things, would have considered the conduct to have been harassment, or that the harassment would have caused another to fear violence.

Harassment – Case law has stated that the word “harassment” is to be taken in its ordinary meaning, i.e. in the sense that the average, reasonable person would consider it. However, in general, the courts have stated that, generally (but not exclusively), any conduct which course another alarm or distress is likely fall under harassment.

Sentence and Procedure

The offence of harassment under section 2 carries a maximum sentence of six months’ imprisonment, or an unlimited fine, or both. As such, it is only triable in the magistrates’ court by way of a lay bench of three magistrates or a District Judge sitting alone.

The more serious offence of causing another to fear violence has a maximum sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment, or an unlimited fine, or both. It is an “either way” offence which means that it can be dealt with either in the magistrates court or the Crown Court – where will depend on the complexity and seriousness of the case, and also on whether the defendant chooses to elect trial by jury.

Additional Information

Where a person has been on trial for any of the above offences, the Court may, upon either an acquittal or a conviction, make a restraining order in order to protect the complainant (section 5A of the Protection of Harassment Act and section 360 of the Sentencing Act 2020). Breaching a restraining order carries a maximum sentence of five years’ imprisonment, or a fine, or both.

Legal disclaimer: Articles are intended as an introduction to the topic and do not constitute legal advice. The information contained herein is accurate at the date of publication but please note that the law is ever changing and evolving. If you require advice in relation to any matter raised in this article please contact a member of the team.


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