Harassment is a criminal offence and a civil wrong, which means it can be resolved in the criminal or civil courts/employment tribunal. It is a serious offence that can have a lasting impact on those who experience it. Many of these types of harassment overlap – for example, sexual harassment might come in the form of verbal or physical harassment.
At St Pauls Chambers, our barristers have significant experience with harassment cases. In this post, we’ll be reviewing some of the most common types of harassment alongside some examples of inappropriate behaviours.
Different Types of Harassment
There are many different types of harassment which can be carried out in different ways, but s.1(2) of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 defines actions or behaviours as amounting to (or involving) harassment if ‘a reasonable person in possession of the same information would think the course of conduct amounted to harassment of the other’.
It typically refers to actions which are carried out repeatedly or over a period of time, and which make the victim feel humiliated, degraded, unsafe or intimidated.
It’s important to be aware that legislation involving protection against harassment does not explicitly define these types of harassment; every case is subjective.
Types of General Harassment
According to the Equality Act 2010, discrimination occurs where ‘a person (A) discriminates against another (B) if, because of a protected characteristic, A treats B less favourably than A treats or would treat others’. Protected characteristics, in this instance, refer to age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage or civil partnership, pregnancy or maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.
According to a survey by Ciphr, 40% of individuals who are employed full-time in the UK say they have experienced workplace discrimination of some kind, and almost two-thirds (65%) of black people who responded to another survey said that they had experienced prejudice from doctors and other staff in healthcare settings.
Examples of discrimination harassment: Using slurs or derogatory language, asking inappropriate questions, policies that put certain groups at a disadvantage (such as dress codes that ban afro hairstyles, braids and cornrows, or require female employees to wear high heels or makeup).
- Verbal harassment
Verbal harassment refers to using language or sounds that cause another person to feel uncomfortable, unsafe or upset. Verbal harassment can occur on a spectrum – what one person considers playful banter, another might consider inappropriate, intimidating or hurtful. Often, this type of harassment is played off as ‘just a joke’, but this dismisses the impact that the harassment can have on the victim, particularly over an extended period of time.
Examples of verbal harassment: Defamation, spreading rumours or gossip, making nasty or offensive jokes, revealing personal information told in confidence (or found out by accident), intentionally embarrassing or isolating someone, making threats, name-calling.
- Physical harassment
Similarly to verbal harassment, physical harassment might not be intended as harassment but may be honestly viewed as appropriate or funny by the perpetrator, even if the victim disagrees. It’s important that, where behaviour has made the victim feel uncomfortable, it is stopped immediately and not continued. For example, if one person were to hug another, were asked not to and continued to attempt to hug the other person regardless, this would be considered physical harassment.
Some instances of physical harassment can be considered assault or Actual Bodily Harm (ABH).
Examples of physical harassment: Threatening or offensive gestures, violence (hitting, kicking, shoving), throwing objects around, false imprisonment (such as blocking exits or refusing to allow someone to walk away from a confrontation).
- Sexual Harassment
Any actions with an unwanted or unreciprocated sexual or romantic overtone can be considered sexual harassment. According to findings from UN Women, 71% of women of all ages in the UK have experienced some form of sexual harassment in a public space, and the figure rises to 86% among 18-24-year-olds.
Examples of sexual harassment: Catcalls or whistling, sexual comments or innuendo, commenting on someone’s body or clothing, persistent sexual or romantic advances, unsolicited contact (such as emails or pictures), stalking or assault.
Stalking is a serious offence, and can be understood as Fixated, Obsessive, Unwanted and Repeated (FOUR) behaviour. Stalkers may be fixating on creating a relationship with their victim, using stalking to intimidate or exacting retribution for a slight, perceived or otherwise.
The sentencing for stalking is typically split into two distinct offences – Stalking and Stalking (involving fear of violence or serious alarm or distress). Stalking offences may also fall under the overarching principles of domestic abuse.
Examples of stalking: Following, watching or spying on another person, persistently or intrusively contacting them, loitering in public or private where you know you will see them, interfering with their property.
In the modern world, cyberstalking is a very prevalent type of harassment. Access to the internet means that not only is it easy to contact someone across a range of platforms, but it is typically much easier for stalkers to find out significant data about their victim.
This can also lead to the formation of unhealthy parasocial relationships, which occur where one party becomes heavily invested in a perceived relationship and the other party is not aware of any such relationship. While parasocial relationships are not inherently unhealthy, if they amount to cyberstalking it can be harmful to the perpetrator’s mental health and dangerous to the victim.
Examples of cyberstalking: Persistent, unwanted communication with another person, carrying out surveillance or monitoring of that person, damaging their reputation, sending spam or malware.
- Psychological harassment
Psychological harassment has many similarities with verbal harassment, but where verbal harassment may amount to a simple difference of opinion, psychological harassment is a targeted attack.
Examples of psychological harassment: Isolating a person, humiliating or degrading them, constantly opposing one person in particular, intimidation, gaslighting (questioning a person’s reality and causing them to doubt their sanity), micromanaging.
- Retaliation harassment
This type of harassment most often occurs in the workplace, and is typically a form of retribution for a slight. For example, if person A files a complaint about person B and person B finds out, they might then begin to harass person A in response.
Person B might tell their co-workers what person A did, and encourage others to ignore person A, or go through person A’s social media to find something embarrassing to share with the office.
- Third-party harassment
In a working environment, third-party harassment occurs when someone outside an organisation (such as a customer, client or contractor) harasses someone working within that organisation. It typically affects employees in junior roles or those who are younger or lack experience, as they may feel more vulnerable.
In some circumstances, employers are liable for protecting their employees from this type of harassment.
Examples of third-party harassment: A customer making inappropriate comments to a young barista, a client making sexual jokes to a receptionist every time they come in, a customer being threatening or intimidating to a cashier.
Harassment and Stalking Sentencing in the Criminal Courts
The maximum sentence for harassment or stalking is six months’ custody, elevated to two years if the offence was racially or religiously aggravated.
If the offence is putting people in fear of violence or involving fear of violence or serious alarm or distress, the maximum sentence is ten years’ custody, elevated to fourteen years if the offence was racially or religiously aggravated.
Some aggravating factors for different types of harassment cases include previous convictions, an impact that goes wider than the victim (i.e. affecting children), and where the victim is particularly vulnerable.
Mitigating factors might include where the offender has shown remorse, has a serious medical condition, mental disorder or learning disability, or has demonstrated that they are taking steps to address their offending behaviour.
Sentencing for harassment and stalking cases will consider the culpability of the offender and the level of harm caused by the offence.
Harassment cases can be complex and multifaceted, so if your client has been accused of any type of harassment, it’s imperative that you instruct expert legal advice as soon as possible. Please get in touch with us at St Pauls Chambers today to learn more and discuss your case.