Stalking Law Spotlight


Stalking Law

Stephen Dempster asks why NI doesn't have legislation making stalking a specific crime and hears from victims who claim the law has let them down.


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SPOTLIGHT STALKER NIC B884P/01 BRD000000

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Stalking - it's a crime that breeds fear and terror.

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Never seen this person before.

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He just came from out of the blue

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and became this scary character that...

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..hunted me. For years.

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And it takes over victims' lives.

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I don't go out very often, constantly checking the doors,

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constantly looking out the window.

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I'm surrounded by security everywhere.

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CCTV, panic buttons up and downstairs...

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Alarm systems.

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But in Northern Ireland, it is an invisible crime.

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In purely legal terms, it doesn't exist.

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We don't name it as a specific criminal offence.

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But according to some victims, this means police

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and prosecutors then fail to protect them.

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Am I ever going to be rid of this man?

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Are the police ever going to take me seriously?

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Am I a nuisance to them?

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Do they think I'm making it up?

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So why is Northern Ireland the only region of the UK not to

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recognise stalking in law?

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And what are the consequences for the victims?

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You may think it is something that only happens to celebrities -

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movie stars or pop stars like Lily Allen.

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I could see from the minute that he came into my bedroom that he

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was ill and that he needed help.

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The majority of victims of stalking are women and most stalkers are men.

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According to research in Great Britain, stalking affects up

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to one in six women in their lifetime.

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If the same were to be true in Northern Ireland, that would

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mean thousands and thousands of people here are affected.

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Breaking the silence are women in Northern Ireland with

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powerful experiences of their stalking nightmares.

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In early 2011, Vicky Clarke was on

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a night out in Bangor with friends.

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I went to the bar to get a drink

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and this man stood beside me

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and said, "Do you remember me?"

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I didn't know him, I couldn't remember him.

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We just had a wee chitchat and that was it.

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Um, a couple of months later,

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he popped up on Facebook

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and befriended me, if you like.

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The pair dated during that summer.

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Vicky remembers they had good times together.

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Scenic places, parks, cafes...

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We'd have driven quite a bit around, if you like, the peninsula.

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I did have feelings for him.

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Bruno Mars, "Catch a Grenade for You",

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believe it or not was our theme song!

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And also, there was a very soft side to him.

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But it was a short-lived romance.

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After just a few months, Vicky said she told him

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he wasn't the man for her.

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And he didn't react well.

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PHONE RINGS

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One night, she switched off her phone

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to get a break from him persistently contacting her.

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I woke up to text messages and missed calls from friends

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saying, "Vicky, check your Facebook page, quickly".

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So I did and I was horrified.

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What she saw was a sexually explicit photo of her

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that he'd posted online.

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I was panicking, I couldn't... It was one of those moments

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when you're just trying to get on the computer as quick as you can.

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I was so ashamed, so humiliated,

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so degraded.

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Vicky says she foolishly agreed to him taking some photos,

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but she thought he had deleted them.

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We were out one night, had a couple of drinks, came back to his place

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and I posed, if you like,

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for a couple of photographs.

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He asked for them.

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I didn't think anything about it.

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I didn't realise that this could happen to me.

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She went to the police, but they didn't charge him with any offence.

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So she ended up keeping in touch with her ex,

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she says in part to ensure he didn't do anything more with the pictures.

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I led on to be friends with him.

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I thought if I don't aggravate him or I don't annoy him,

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then maybe if I just seem like we're friends,

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maybe then he won't start doing his worst.

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But that wasn't the case.

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Over the next few months, she says he bombarded her with texts,

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e-mails, letters and cards.

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Some were messages of love,

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others were threatening.

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And then he wrote, "Every breath I take

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"I think of you, I love you with all my heart,

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"I never ever will hurt you,

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"I will honour and respect you, I am here for you, my only love."

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He then began following her and turning up at her workplace.

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Some days, he showed up on her commute to or from work.

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I wanted him to stop, I didn't want him to come near me.

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I was coming home over the Queen's Bridge in Belfast,

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he actually came to my window at the traffic lights

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and started banging on my window, "I love you!"

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at the top of his voice.

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I didn't know what to do, I was terrified.

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It does seem like

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normal relationship break-up stuff at first?

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Yes, it was like that for me, I thought he was just heartbroken and

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he was just trying to keep in touch with me, but it moved from feeling

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loved, if you like, or heartbroken, to feeling actually quite scared.

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But what Becky didn't realise was that what was happening to her

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had all the hallmarks of stalking.

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Stalking behaviour can happen

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when the couple are still together,

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so for example a husband or partner turning up in the workplace,

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following the person when they're going on a night out.

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So it happens when the couple are still together,

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but happens more predominantly when...

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Once the couple have separated.

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Whilst part of Vicky badly wanted rid of him,

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she also still had feelings for him.

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She says on one occasion, even after he posted the intimate

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photo on Facebook, she slept with him a final time.

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I mucked that up myself.

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He persisted and persisted in contacting me.

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Hindsight's a great thing.

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But I didn't know what this person was like,

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I didn't know what he was like.

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Vicky eventually cut off all contact with her ex, and the PSNI

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attempted to make a harassment case against him, but it failed.

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She accepts that the police's task was made more difficult

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by the fact she hadn't made a clean break from the relationship.

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After the case collapsed, she says the stalking behaviour got worse.

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She claims he made threats to kill her.

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She also moved house, but he found out where she was.

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Vicky documented and reported incidents to the PSNI.

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In March 2013, she was back at the police station

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to log another approach from her stalker.

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And when she left, she says he was actually waiting outside for her.

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I went back into the police station, thinking great, police officers

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are going to witness him, cos all the time I've been doing this,

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you have to have witnesses, you have to have evidence, record everything.

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According to Vicky, her stalker made up an excuse for being there

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and the matter was closed.

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But the incident left her with serious questions

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about the police attitude to what was going on.

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I thought, am I ever going to be rid of this man?

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Are the police ever going to take me seriously?

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Am I a nuisance to them?

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Do they think I'm making it up?

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There were times, more intermittent,

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Vicky says her stalking ordeal has continued.

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Recently, police have provided her with a panic alarm,

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but they still haven't built a case against her alleged tormentor.

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So in March, she applied to court herself.

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On the day of the hearing, her former boyfriend signed

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an undertaking promising to leave her alone.

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I've been robbed of five years of peace,

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feeling normal,

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feeling safe,

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being a mum who's carefree and happy.

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I feel like I'm tired of firefighting, that I've had to fight

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a stalker, I've had to fight the police, I had to fight the court.

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When we contacted the man Vicky said stalked her, through his

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solicitor, he said that he

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"vigorously and entirely denied her allegations".

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We also asked the PSNI to respond to Vicky's claims that they had failed

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to investigate her case properly and viewed her as a nuisance.

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The police said they could not comment on Vicky's case

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as the police ombudsman is investigating

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a complaint from her about their handling of it.

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What we're doing is a bunch of women are getting together

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and we're going to sign a petition

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and bring it to the Assembly to ask them to change our laws.

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Vicky and friends are gathering signatures for her

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"laws for women" petition.

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They are protesting because Northern Ireland is the only

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region of the UK that does not have stalking legislation.

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They're demanding Stormont now make stalking a specific

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criminal offence.

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I'll chain myself to the gates of Stormont

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and that's just how far I'm going to go with this. They have to listen.

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The government has to listen.

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Stalking involves persistent and clearly unwanted attention.

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It can cause fear, anxiety, alarm or distress.

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In extreme cases, victims have been murdered.

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Usually, it involves tracking someone

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and sometimes in the most mundane ways.

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Leaving gifts is a behaviour that's very common -

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unwanted, romantic gifts - that other people would not

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regard as problematic in any way, shape or form,

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but actually, to the person that receives that gift,

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it's a real...

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You know, it's a threat.

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It's a threat because that's saying, "I know where you are,

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"I know what you're doing."

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Because stalking isn't named in law in Northern Ireland,

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the type of unwanted and persistent attention Vicky was receiving

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is simply called harassment.

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However, the harassment law is broad

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and includes all sorts of behaviour,

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like minor neighbourhood disputes.

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Vicky says this downplays the particular severity of stalking

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and some victims feel that it leads to their cases

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not being properly understood.

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Stalking victims say labelling what is happening to them as harassment

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is a serious shortcoming that's having an impact on their lives.

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Failure by police and prosecutors to identify patterns of stalking

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behaviour was a key finding in a Parliamentary report five years ago.

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It said that the harassment law was "not fit to protect

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"the victims of stalking".

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So the law was changed

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and in England, Scotland and Wales,

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stalking is a specific criminal offence.

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But it wasn't changed in Northern Ireland.

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The man who made that decision was former Justice Minister David Ford.

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There was certainly consideration of

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offences around stalking -

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the evidence that was available

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to me at the time was that existing offences covered what is in effect

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stalking and there was no need to name it specifically.

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There was no justification for prioritising it against all

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the other issues that we had to consider.

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Solicitor Ciaran Moynagh is concerned that the law has not been

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brought into line with the rest of the UK.

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Having stalking defined in law

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would shine a torch on that issue

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and that would focus, then...

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Victims would know they're actual victims,

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perpetrators would know what they're doing is unlawful

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and then the professional agencies would have tools

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and they'd be equipped to tackle the stalking specifically.

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When you raise the issue of stalking here, it's as if it doesn't exist.

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Stormont says it has no statistics for stalking-related convictions.

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There is no local research on the subject

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and there are no support groups for the victims of stalking.

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And that can leave them feeling abandoned.

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If you're a victim of stalking

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in Northern Ireland,

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then you aren't going to get

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justice, it's as simple as that.

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If you're a victim in England,

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although there are difficulties still, in terms of the police

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requiring training and all the rest of it, you've still got a far better

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chance of obtaining justice and the law is at least there to enable it.

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In Northern Ireland, even if the police WANT to do something,

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their hands are tied and they cannot prosecute for stalking.

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But David Ford says that just because the law doesn't

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mention stalking, it doesn't mean victims are not protected.

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Yes, exactly.

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I can certainly see how victims would see it that way.

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But when you look at the whole issue of the creation of an offence,

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you need to look at the balance of where existing offences fit,

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how they tie together the work of the different justice agencies,

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how they deal with it, as well as how victims feel.

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And those judgements are frequently complex.

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This is Margarette O'Donnell, a busy young mum of three from Coleraine.

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If she's not with the kids or doing voluntary work,

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she's often hard at it in the gym.

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She's come a long way from a horrifying ordeal that

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gripped her life when she was a teenager.

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I just remember walking down the road,

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this male voice from behind just...

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"Hello, nice day, isn't it?"

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Oh, it's a lovely day,

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great day, good to see it.

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And...

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He just continued to walk

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beside me and talk to me,

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though the way he talked changed.

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It changed from this friendly,

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to this sharp voice of...

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"I suppose you like a good screw? I suppose you like a good shag?"

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Um...

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"I bet your boyfriend likes a good shag?"

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And this is basically how he started to talk to me and

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he kind of got me unaware and I just froze, I didn't know what to say.

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The police were called, but couldn't find him. He appeared

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sporadically over months, mostly turning up at her work.

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Never seen this person before.

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He just came from out of the blue

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and became the scary character that...

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hunted me, for years.

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That's the only way I can think to put it.

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I really didn't realise how much of...

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..our lives that it had taken over,

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it's only when you talk about it now.

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Scared to go out, Margarette spent much of her time in her

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bedroom and the stress took its toll,

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not just on her, but on her family,

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and especially her mum.

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I was obsessed with how you'd know

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that anything would happen to her.

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What did you worry that he was capable of?

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Could he murder her?

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Could he rape her?

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Would she disappear and never be seen again?

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Though Margarette didn't suffer any physical harm,

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part of her trauma stemmed from having no idea who her stalker was,

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or why he was doing it.

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Nobody could protect me, this man was so powerful.

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And I was powerless.

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You try everything to make yourself safe,

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but he could have done anything.

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When the stalking stopped, she just wanted to move on with her life,

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rather than cope with the psychological trauma

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it had left behind.

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But last year, as a result of other problems she was experiencing,

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she found herself struggling with depression.

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In November, she decided to take her own life

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here at Ramore Head.

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What was it like being here that day?

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I had this day planned, like...

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I knew when I dropped the kids off,

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that would be the last time I'd see them.

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I didn't want to live, I didn't...

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I just wanted everything to end, the pain to end.

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Margarette was ready to jump,

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but a passer-by intervened.

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Looking back, it's been hard for her to realise how big a part

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stalking played in her depression.

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I don't think it's never going to leave me, like...

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But I feel stronger.

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And I don't... I don't have the same fear as I would have had.

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What about him?

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Are you still afraid of him?

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I'm not afraid of him.

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I've been afraid of what he did.

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There was never any justice for what he did and I was never confident...

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..that he would never do it again.

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I've basically lived my life... Even though he hasn't been around,

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I've lived my life with a stalker.

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28% of stalking victims consider taking their own lives.

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Today, Margarette is now determined to help others

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facing similar trauma.

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We contacted Margarette's stalker and put to him

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the allegations she has made.

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In a letter, his solicitor confirmed

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this man was interviewed by police about these matters

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in 2003, but was never charged

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and the case was dropped.

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He said the man denies causing any form of harassment to Margarette.

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Since the introduction of the new stalking law in England and Wales,

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prosecutions for it and other forms of harassment have risen.

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David Ford says that it may be necessary to look at the law again.

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There is clearly evidence showing what has happened in England

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and Wales, we need to look to see exactly what the comparisons

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would be with Northern Ireland, but it's certainly something

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which appears to merit looking at it again.

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So we've been seeking to ensure that Northern Ireland law

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meets Northern Ireland needs and maybe on some occasions,

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information comes to light two or three years down the line which

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suggests we need to examine it. This may well be one of those cases.

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Brenda lives every single day under siege.

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I tend to go to shops that have cameras in them.

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Constantly checking the doors,

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constantly looking out the window.

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I'm surrounded by security everywhere.

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CCTV, panic buttons up and downstairs, um...

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Alarm systems.

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For Brenda, who didn't want her face shown,

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her stalking nightmare began 14 years ago.

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A man she had briefly dated began following her and making threats.

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Twice, he tried to run her over in his car.

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To get away from him, Brenda left Northern Ireland.

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A decade later and now a mum,

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she returned and it all began again.

2:15:322:15:35

In 2012, she took and paid for her own case to get a temporary

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court order to stop her stalker coming near her.

2:15:462:15:49

But that didn't work.

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And in 2013, he showed his total disregard for the court process.

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I was sitting in the house, it was around 10.00, 10.30 at night

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and the door knocked. So...

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At this stage now, we all know, the stalker's on the go.

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Let me in.

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I opened the blind and looked out, and it was him.

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He started doing the sign of a gun at his head.

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And I lifted my son off the sofa, called the cops.

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He's at the door, he's back.

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Police charged him with criminal damage and threats to kill.

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Last year, Brenda's stalker was deemed mentally unfit to

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stand criminal trial and released,

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pending psychiatric reports.

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Despite bail conditions, within weeks of being in court,

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he was back at Brenda's door.

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She called the police, but by the time they arrived, he had gone.

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Lo and behold, this time, the police are at my house, there's an officer

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with me and the door knocked whilst I was giving him my statement.

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And it was the stalker.

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Out the way!

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He pushed the cop out the way and got into my house

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and he was standing in my house with the cops now wrestling with him,

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screaming, "Will you marry me?" at like, 5.00 in the morning.

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He had to be dragged out of my house by the cops

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-and physically restrained to be handcuffed.

-What are you doing?

2:17:212:17:25

Her stalker appeared before the magistrates' court,

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but was - again - let out on bail.

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But just days later, he was back at Brenda's door once more.

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This time, he was jailed for several months,

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but he is now out of prison.

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Brenda says jailing him for breaching bail conditions

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and not for his stalking was, in her words, "a joke".

2:17:552:17:59

It's laughable. There's no...

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It in no way makes you feel safe, it in no way makes you

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feel like someone is going to stand up and say,

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"Look, we know everything he's doing here is wrong,

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"we understand what it has done to your life, we understand

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and we're going to do something about it.

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Because they don't.

2:18:162:18:17

Her stalker is now under another order not to approach Brenda,

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and receiving treatment for what the court was told

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is paranoid psychosis.

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Brenda's case is complicated by the fact this man is

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mentally ill and there's a limit to what the criminal justice system

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can do to punish and restrain him.

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But she says he IS still a stalker and should be named

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and treated as such and she believes that

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if he'd been charged with stalking, it would have focused the minds

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of prosecutors on how to deal with him at a much earlier stage.

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It's left her frustrated and very angry.

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I'm always waiting for him to come back.

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How am I ever supposed to think he's not going to come back?

2:19:052:19:08

We contacted Brenda's stalker through his solicitor

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to put Brenda's allegations to him.

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He said he did not wish to participate in the programme.

2:19:162:19:20

We asked the PSNI and the Public Prosecution Service to

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talk about the women's concerns over the existing law in particular,

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and their claims the authorities are failing to build cases

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that convict stalkers.

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Both declined to be interviewed.

2:19:382:19:41

But in statements, they said,

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"While there's no specific offence of stalking here,

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"this form of conduct may be covered by other types of legislation

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"and they can seek to use restraining orders."

2:19:502:19:53

The police said they're committed to keeping people safe and no victim

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should ever feel their complaints are not being taken seriously.

2:19:572:20:01

They acknowledge victims' issues about treating

2:20:012:20:03

incidents in isolation,

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but pointed out if a complete offence has been committed, they are

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obliged to investigate this rather than waiting for another incident.

2:20:092:20:14

The PPS said stalking is a complex issue and rejected any assertion

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they avoid taking stalking-type cases forward using existing laws.

2:20:202:20:25

Vicky Clarke has come to Stormont.

2:20:282:20:30

Her stalker has recently signed a court undertaking agreeing not

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to go near her. But her campaign to change the law continues.

2:20:342:20:39

Today, she's meeting MLA Brenda Hale.

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We need to put a very, very clear message out there,

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that actually, you cannot stalk,

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you cannot make people's lives hell.

2:20:492:20:51

What she has been through and what her family have been through

2:20:512:20:54

and her friends, and yet there seems to be no help or

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assistance from the justice system or the PSNI.

2:20:572:21:01

Brenda Hale plans to bring a Private Member's Bill

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to address the gap in the law.

2:21:052:21:07

Today, the new Justice Minister said extending the provisions here

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is something she'd be willing to consider.

2:21:112:21:14

But for women who have felt hunted for years,

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a change will come too late.

2:21:172:21:19

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