The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 (PHA) makes provision for protecting persons from harassment and similar conduct.
The Act is relevant for IT professionals who need to safeguard workers from harassment committed using the organisation's computers, systems and networks.
Definition: The Crown Prosecution's Guidelines on Harrassment state:
"harassment is not specifically defined it can include repeated attempts to impose unwanted communications and contacts upon a victim in a manner that could be expected to cause distress or fear in any reasonable person."
In this legal guidance, the term harassment is used to cover the 'causing alarm or distress' offences under section 2 of the PHA as amended , and 'putting people in fear of violence' offences under section 4 of the PHA. The term can also include harassment by two or more defendants against an individual or harassment against more than one victim.
Although harassment is not specifically defined it can include repeated attempts to impose unwanted communications and contacts upon a victim in a manner that could be expected to cause distress or fear in any reasonable person.
The harassment of another or others can include a range of offences such as those under:
- the Protection from Harassment Act 1997;
- the Sexual Offences Act 2003; and
- the Malicious Communications Act 1988. It is important when considering this type of offending to look at all relevant legislation when formulating charges.
Closely connected groups may also be subjected to 'collective' harassment. The primary intention of this type of harassment is not generally directed at an individual but rather at members of a group. This could include: members of the same family; residents of a particular neighbourhood; groups of a specific identity including ethnicity or sexuality, for example, the racial harassment of the users of a specific ethnic community centre; harassment of a group of disabled people; harassment of gay clubs; or of those engaged in a specific trade or profession.
Harassment of an individual can also occur when a person is harassing others connected with the individual, knowing that this behaviour will affect their victim as well as the other people that the person appears to be targeting their actions towards. This is known as 'stalking by proxy'. Family members, friends and employees of the victim may be subjected to this.
Certain groups of professionals are particularly susceptible to harassment connected with their work. These include doctors, judges, police officers, teachers and other authority and public figures. It may also involve harassment of individuals as a result of their employment by a particular employer.
Under this act the definition of harassment is behavior which causes alarm or distress. The Act provides for a jail sentence of up to six months or a fine. There are also a variety of civil remedies that can be used including awarding of damages, and restraining orders backed by the power of arrest.
Section 3 applies the legal principle of 'vicarious liability' to employers for any harassment carried out by their employees (see Majrowski v Guy's and St Thomas’s NHS Trust).
For employees this may provide an easier route to compensation than claims based on discrimination legislation or personal injury claims for stress at work, as the elements of harassment are likely to be easier to prove, the statutory defence is not available to the employer, and it may be easier to establish a claim for compensation. The claim can be made in the County Court so costs are recoverable and legal aid is available.