The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 provides that a person must not pursue a course of conduct which amounts to harassment of another and which he knows or ought to know amounts to harassment of the other. Although many remain unaware, there are legal steps that can be taken to bring the abuse to an end, often much more speedily than is often realised.
Virtually everyone, and certainly those in positions of responsibility, can from time to time expect and must accept some criticism. Particularly so when decisions they make (however well-intended) impact, perhaps detrimentally, upon others. As those individuals would themselves concede, “it goes with the territory.” It is often now the case that when those critical comments are posted to social media sites, they can have long and far-reaching consequences as targeted harassment.
What if that criticism goes too far? What if the individual or his or her staff, or even family become the subject of what, in effect, becomes a hate campaign? Is there anything he or she can do to protect themselves from harassment or do they simply have to suffer in silence?
Taking Action against Harassment
Whilst the Act does make it possible to pursue criminal proceedings when seeking protection from harassment, a civil action is often likely to be the preferred option. It is likely to bring about a quicker resolution and the person pursuing the claim remains in more control as to how the action progresses. In reality, to be giving consideration to pursuing a harassment action, it is likely that the campaign has been ongoing for some time. It must constitute conduct that goes beyond unattractive and unreasonable and has moved to a level that is oppressive and unacceptable.
A court can award damages for harassment and if that harassment has been prolonged, particularly unpleasant, or caused the person (or members of their family) to be harassed, impacting on their mental health, those damages can be substantial. That said, the main reason for instigating proceedings will almost always be to bring the harassment to an end.
As a judge in a harassment trial once said,
“Those engaging in the kind of persistent and deliberate course of targeted oppression with which the Act is concerned will, in the nature of things, be obsessives and cranks who will commonly believe themselves to be entitled to act as they do.”
Legal Consequences of Harassment
If the harassment is being perpetrated by such an individual, it is likely to be ongoing and that individual is unlikely to listen to reason. If so, upon issue of proceedings, an application should be made for an immediate interim injunction. It is likely to be granted by the Court and if so, the person or persons against whom the claim is brought will be ordered to cease the harassment with immediate effect pending a final Court order. Should they breach that interim injunction, that is contempt of Court which can be punished by a fine, imprisonment or both.
So, pursuing harassment proceedings can bring about a swift end to the harassment which may have been ongoing for several years. Once an interim injunction has been granted, the likelihood is that the harassment will have been brought to an immediate halt. Quite often, that will bring a conclusion to the harassment without the need to then proceed to a full trial. The person being harassed, their family and quite possibly their staff can put the nightmare behind them and get on with their lives.
One final thought – the main target of the harassment may feel their shoulders are broad enough and they can cope with the abuse, however unreasonable, that is being directed at them without seeking protection from harassment. But if it is workplace harassment and other, possibly more junior, members of staff have been dragged into the campaign, what about them? If no action is taken by the employer to protect an employee and the employee consequently develops a stress-related illness brought about by the harassment, they may well have an action against the employer for failure to ensure his or her safety. In those circumstances, can the employer afford not to act?