What legal support is there?

This section sets out what you should expect from the police when reporting an incident or concerning behaviour and the legislation that applies to intimidation, abuse and harassment with the aim of helping councillors experiencing intimidation or abuse to classify it according to the legislation.

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The role of the police

As a councillor, you are likely to know and have developed a good working relationship with your local police team.

Any concerns about behaviour or conduct which leaves you worried about your safety or that of any other individual can be reported to the police. If you are concerned about your immediate safety this should be done by calling 999. You can report non-urgent concerns to your local force by calling 101 or you can report online using the Police UK reporting form.

The police will take initial details about the incident/s from you and provide you with a crime reference number. They will then carry out an investigative assessment to determine whether the incident/s need to be investigated further. The systems and practices used to record these initial details vary between police forces, but this does not affect your legal rights. Further information about your rights and how the police should respond can be obtained from Know Your Rights. You may be asked to provide further information and/or be interviewed as part of this (providing a statement). Not all incident/s will result in an investigation and the decision to investigate is one made by the police based on a number of factors – a decision not to investigate does not mean the incident is not a crime. You should not be deterred from reporting future incident/s because of previous decisions.

Practices vary from areas to area, but in some areas councils may be able to make reports directly to the police on the councillors behalf and may be able to help make sure that councillor complaints are taken seriously by local police. No matter the level of involvement, you should make sure the council is aware that you are reporting an incident to the police so they can offer you the necessary support.

Any concerns about police conduct or decision making can be made to the police force directly or to the Independent Office for Police Conduct in England and Wales, the Police Investigations & Review Commissioner in Scotland and the Police Ombudsman in Northern Ireland.

If the police investigate and decide to charge the perpetrator they may seek a charging decision from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in England and Wales, Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service in Scotland and Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland. They may subsequently decide not to prosecute and the victim has a right to ask for a review of the decision under the Victims Right to Review Scheme.

Concerns or complaints about the CPS should be made directly to them. Concerns or complaints about courts, sentencing and tribunals can be made to HM Courts & Tribunals Service.

The Code of Practice for Victims of Crime in England and Wales sets out how the police, CPS and other criminal justice organisations should treat you as a victim of crime. There is a corresponding Victims’ Code of Scotland which sets out your rights and who you can contact for help in Scotland and in Northern Ireland there is a Victims’ Charter.

What the law says

Building on the previous parts of this guide, this section is designed to provide a brief overview of some of the relevant statutes and legislation in the UK which relates to various types of behaviour and conduct. This guide is not exhaustive, but rather illustrates some of the ways the law may deal with such behaviours. Similarly, we have included some information about the civil remedies the police and/or court may pursue in these cases, but again this is not a complete list and the availability of these remedies will be dependent on the facts and circumstances of individual cases.

Harassment, stalking and unwanted contact/communication

There are several offences which capture behaviour which amounts to harassment and stalking, and other offences which address more general nuisance and unwanted contact.

Where the behaviour constitutes a course of conduct or pattern of behaviour – defined in law as two or more incidents - that amounts to stalking and/or fear of violence or serious alarm OR distress this may fall under either Harassment or Stalking offences, both are dealt with by the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 (as amended by Protection of Freedoms Act 2012) in England and Wales and Protection from Harassment Order (Northern Ireland) 1997. In Scotland, the relevant statue is Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010.

Sending unwanted communications – either by letter, fax or online – may amount to an offence under the Malicious Communications Act 1988 and/or Communications Act 2003 (which applies to the whole of the UK). In Scotland and Northern Ireland, additional statutes which may apply are the Criminal Justice & Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010, The Malicious Communications (Northern Ireland) Order 1988 and Telecommunications Act 1984 (Northern Ireland).

The police can apply to the magistrate’s court for a Stalking Protection Order (SPO) (regardless of whether the incident ultimately results in a charge/prosecution) which is a civil order that can prohibit the offender from a range of things including contacting the victim, restricting their access to specific geographical areas and making contact with third parties such as the victim’s friends and family. Alternatively, restraining orders can be issued by the court – either on conviction or acquittal (where the offender is found not guilty or the case against them is withdrawn). These are similar to SPOs in that they are civil orders which restrict behaviour and are intended to protect the victim. Breaching of SPOs or restraining orders constitutes a criminal offence.

Where the behaviour does not amount to harassment but constitutes nuisance – for example loitering, excessive noise, congregating in crowds in public spaces, shouting abuse towards an individual or group – it may amount to an offence under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014. In terms of civil remedies, the police or court may issue injunction notices (including Community Protection Notice or Criminal Behaviour Orders in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and Antisocial Behaviour Orders in Scotland). These orders variously require individuals to stop engaging in particular behaviours and/or restrict their activities in other ways.

Using threatening, abusive words or behaviour which may cause unlawful violence or harassment and alarm but which do not amount to stalking or harassment (because, for example, they are isolated incidents rather than a course of conduct) may be captured by the Public Order Act 1986 (England and Wales) Public Order (Northern Ireland) 1987 and Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010.

Assault and violent offences including sexual offences

Depending on the nature of the violence and the injuries sustained, a number of offences may be relevant. For conduct that makes someone fear they are going to be immediately assaulted (regardless of whether they are actually assaulted) and/or assaults which cause no or very minor harm or injury (such as a graze) the most relevant offence is Common Assault in England and Wales (Criminal Justice act 1988) and Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010, Assault (common law – Scotland) and Assault (Offences Against the Person Act 1861) (Northern Ireland).

For physical assaults that result in injury, the relevant statute is the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, which incorporates Assault Occasioning Actual Bodily Harm and Grievous Bodily Harm. Such conduct includes physical assaults which cause major bruising, broken bones, wounding, lacerations, damage to organs, life-changing injuries and death and can include injuries caused by weapons. Potential civil remedies include restraining orders.

Threats to kill – whether made in person or by other communication – is also captured by the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 (England, Wales and Northern Ireland) and the common law offence of Threats (Scotland).

Where the assault is sexual in nature, the behaviour is captured by the Sexual Offences Act 2003 (England and Wales), Common Law (Scotland) and rape, attempted rape, indecent assault are covered by The Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008. Any sexual contact without consent is a criminal offence. Depending on the conduct (e.g. penetrative or non-penetrative, contact or non-contact) there are a range of offences which include rape, sexual assault, exposure and voyeurism. Where the behaviour relates to the sharing of intimate images without consent or taking intimate images without consent, the behaviour may be captured by the legislation above and/or Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 and Voyeurism (Offences) Act 2019 in England and Wales. In Scotland, the relevant legislation is Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm (Scotland) Act 2016 and Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009 whilst in Northern Ireland the Justice Act, Northern Ireland 2016 captures these offences.

Civil remedies and regulations to restrict the behaviour of the offender and/or monitor them include Sexual Harm Prevention Order (England, Wales, Scotland), Sexual Risk Order (Scotland) and Sexual Offences Prevention Order (England, Wales and Northern Ireland).

Damage to property

Some damage to property may be captured by the anti-social behaviour legislation described earlier. Additionally, damaging or threatening to damage or destroy property – for example breaking windows, scratching cars, kicking doors - may fall under the Criminal Damage Act 1971 (England and Wales) Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010 and Criminal Damage (Northern Ireland) Order 1977.

Hate crimes

Hate ‘crimes’ may include speech or conduct, for example abuse against an individual in public, private or online, or assault that is motivated by hostility towards someone based on a protected characteristic (race, religion, sexual orientation, disability and transgender identity in England and Wales, and in Scotland age and variations in sex characteristics). There are no specific ‘hate crime’ offences - instead, the ‘base’ offence (e.g. common assault) becomes aggravated by the hostility/hatred element which carry higher maximum penalties. For all other ‘base’ offences where there is no statutory aggravated version, enhanced sentencing is available to the judiciary.

However, stirring up or inciting hatred based on race, religion or sexual orientation are recognised offences. Conduct covered includes using words and behaviour in person, displaying and publishing images and written material, and recordings, broadcasts and theatrical productions that stir up or incite hatred. The relevant statutes include Public Order Act 1986 and Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 in England and Wales, The Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order 1987 and Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act 2021.