The Scottish Government must act with far greater urgency to protect victims of stalking after four years of consultation, campaigners warned yesterday.
The calls for action come as one woman, hounded by a stranger for eight terrifying years, reveals how she has been plunged into fear and desperation after being told he will soon be released from jail after his third sentence for stalking her.
Leigh Martin says Darren Shields, who police believe is a danger to all women, will never stop and is urging the authorities to provide greater support to keep victims safe, including strict monitoring of offenders and stringent restriction orders.
Despite the authorities’ fears and his imminent release, Police Scotland last week declined to release a picture of Shields.
Speaking publicly for the first time to call for urgent action, Ms Martin said: “He has been jailed, warned by judges and banned from coming near me. None of that stopped him. Unless he is tagged and monitored 24 hours a day, he will come out and start again. I am terrified.”
Campaigners warn Scots ministers are taking far too long to act effectively against the men responsible and support their victims.
Ann Moulds of Action Against Stalking is calling for sentencing guidelines to be changed to allow longer jails terms for the most serious and potentially dangerous offenders: “Serial stalkers like Darren Shields could expect jail sentences of up to 10 years in England, while here in Scotland he wasn’t even sentenced to a couple of years, despite repeated offences against the same victim.
“The inadequate sentencing we typically see in Scottish courts simply fails to reflect the seriousness of the crime, the dreadful toll on victims, and does little to discourage predators from continuing their behaviour. While we see police officers and prosecutors doing their best to get cases to court, inadequate sentencing frees stalkers far too quickly. We are now seeking talks on this very issue but despite everything we now know about stalking and the danger to victims, Scotland still does not take this crime nearly seriously enough.
“Where there are indications of a repeat offender or serial stalker like Shields, our criminal justice system must change to take a far more robust and proactive approach.
“They simply cannot continue allowing dangerous stalkers to be unleashed on their victims without effective safeguards in place. Tagging and monitoring repeat stalkers would be an effective way of knowing where they are, which would at least give victims some piece of mind.
“At the moment, far too much is being expected of victims who are already traumatised by the experience, with the onus left to them to seek civil court orders banning a stalker from going near them, something which should be done as a matter of course by the criminal justice system.
“The Scottish Government has spent the last four years talking about stalking. Of course, it is important that they get it right. But it has been four years during which very little has changed.
“We welcome recognition that domestic abuse victims are often also victims of stalking but there are also increasing numbers of stranger stalkers, or what we call intimacy seekers, who can be extremely dangerous predators.”
The latest figures show 1,045 incidents reported to the criminal justice system, with just over half linked to domestic abuse involving a partner or ex-partner.
MSP Rona Mackay’s Private Member’s Bill on stalking aims to give police more powers to act against suspects before conviction, similar to new laws in England and Wales through their Stalking Protection Act 2019.
She said: “The introduction of Stalking Protection Orders, allowing the police to directly apply where they can show evidence of stalking behaviour and believe there is a risk to victims will be helpful, particularly as it takes so long for cases to get to court.
“An Order would then prohibit the stalker from continuing this behaviour. This proposal goes further than recently introduced legislation in England and ensures that no matter the relationship between the victim and stalker, that an SPO could be granted.
“Scotland led the way by making stalking a criminal offence in 2010, and we continue to make this crime a priority along with all the changes being made to domestic abuse laws. However, I’m very much aware that one in four of young women aged between 16 and 24 have said they have been victims of stranger stalking, so it is clear this crime is very much on the increase.
“While my Members’ Bill is on hold while changes are being made to domestic abuse laws, we will finish what I started. We are still evaluating as we are determined to get this right. I’ve had cross-party support and believe what we’re doing will be extremely helpful to victims. Whenever I hear stories like Leigh’s, it brings it home just how devastating a crime stalking is.”
The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service said stalking victims were now better supported with specialist services in place.
Moira Price, Scotland’s lead procurator fiscal for domestic abuse, said: “Stalking has been a specific offence in Scotland since 2010. It is criminal behaviour which damages the lives of its victims in many ways and will not be tolerated. In 2020-21, some 1,045 stalking charges were reported to us. More than half of these, 57%, contained a link to domestic abuse.
“Many victims of stalking know their stalker in some way – often as their partner or ex-partner – but many others do not.
“For any victim, the experience of being stalked can be frightening and distressing. We recognise the impact of this crime and are committed to supporting victims through the criminal justice process. Every victim in a stalking case is now referred to our Victim Information and Advice Service (VIA) where specialist staff provide updates and support to victims to help them navigate the prosecution process, and we work closely with police and third sector organisations.
“Staff at the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service have received training on the offence of stalking. I would urge anyone who has been the victim of this type of offending to report it to the police and seek support. Tackling this crime effectively leads to a safer society for all.”
Detective Superintendent Gillian Faulds said: “Stalking causes fear and alarm and can have a devastating and long-term impact on victims, their families and friends. Whilst there are a number of identified stalking behaviours that are frequently displayed, every stalking situation is unique.
“Stalking is a crime and if you think you are being stalked or know someone who may be a victim, then please report it to Police Scotland. Every report will be fully investigated. You can do this at your local police station, by phoning 101, reporting online or calling 999 if it is an emergency.”
The Scottish Government said: “The Scottish Parliament approved a specific offence of stalking in 2010 with maximum penalties up to five years in prison available. It is for the independent court to sentence in any given case and the Scottish Government supports courts having these extensive powers.
“More generally, the Scottish Government is committed to putting victims at the heart of the justice system and we are providing £48m over the next three years to enable victim support organisations to provide practical and emotional support. This includes £495,000 of dedicated funding for Action Against Stalking, to enable the provision of specialist support to stalking victims in Scotland.”
That man ruined my life, my career, and destroyed the person I once was
Stalked by a complete stranger for eight years, it has taken a long, long time for Leigh Martin to rebuild her life.
She was proud to have endured and survived but, today, is again living in despair and dread after being told her tormentor – convicted three times of stalking her – will soon be released.
After seeing her in a supermarket in Dundee in 2014 and following her, Darren Shields became obsessed, beginning a campaign of harassment, sending her messages, many obscene with some threatening violence.
Speaking publicly for the first time about her ordeal, Ms Martin, who asked that she not be identifiable in any pictures, said: “That man destroyed my life, my career, and the person I once was. I believe he would have killed me if given the chance. The police have now warned me he is about to be released from prison for the third time and my nightmare will begin again.
“He has been jailed three times, warned by judges and banned from coming near me. None of that stopped him. Unless he is tagged and monitored 24 hours a day, I fear he will simply come out of jail and pick up where he left off. I am terrified.”
Shields, 37, was jailed for 21 months in 2020 after previous sentences for harassing Ms Martin in 2016 and 2017. Sheriff Lorna Drummond also placed him on a sexual offences prevention order for 10 years and his name was added to the sex offenders’ register. The sheriff said: “He is not suitable for any community disposal. It’s a serious matter and very much of concern to the court.”
Ms Martin believes repeat offenders like Shields should be electronically tagged on release, banned from towns where their victims live, and that their crimes should be ruled as violent assaults because of the psychological injury inflicted.
Ms Martin said: “I only discovered later, from police, that he had been watching and following me for some time. That was chilling.
“At first, I was embarrassed that this strange man turned up at my parents’ pub to stare at me without speaking. When I stayed away, he asked my parents where I was and told them he was in love with me. My mum told him I had a boyfriend and he got angry.
“He’d bombard my Facebook page with vile messages, sometimes almost 50 a day. I was scared to go out. When I did, I’d search faces in the crowd to see if he was there. The only protection victims have is for the criminal justice system to make the protection of victims the absolute priority.”
Shields’s own lawyer told Dundee Sheriff Court in 2020 that it was unlikely he would stop, whatever punishment was imposed.
Solicitor David Duncan said: “He has some deeply entrenched views and some difficulties that are clearly not going to be overcome by the imposition of custody. He clearly holds views that are simply wrong.”
Ms Martin said she felt “powerless” when the first jail sentence in 2016 failed to stop Shields. She said: “His messages got darker. One asked me to imagine being in an open space with nowhere to run. I began having nightmares that he would come to the school where I worked. I believe he could have been capable of extreme violence, and still do.”
When police warned Shields to stay away, he claimed to be the main carer for his father, who lived close to the primary where Ms Martin worked.
She says she felt “let down” when Dundee City Council did not move her to another school despite a letter to the local authority from Victim Support in January 2016. She said: “The police said Shields was dangerous, so I didn’t feel safe at school. He knew when I was there. The local authority talked about putting up security cameras, but these never emerged.”
Dundee City Council said it could not discuss individual members of staff, past or present.
Ms Martin, who has now completed a law degree and is determined to pursue a career helping others, said the protection of victims not criminals must now be the priority.
She added that the justice system was still failing women: “Unless you have experienced having your every move watched, knowing the person stalking you has threatened your life, and you have no idea what he will do next, you cannot appreciate what genuine terror feels like.
“It ruined my career, my health… everything.”
Stalkers should be put on registers and their crimes taken seriously
By Laura Richards, criminal behaviour analyst
The result of stalking behaviour is often devastating to victims. The insidious drip, drip effect of abuse inflicts so much damage psychologically and physically.
It’s like a war of attrition, yet the real harm done is still not recognised.
Stalking is often still perceived as being associated with domestic abuse involving an ex-partner but we don’t know the number of men who stalk strangers because so many victims don’t report it. There is not enough data, but when the stalking is sexually motivated these men are the most dangerous. Some are serial rapists and serial killers.
This is a crime that can happen to anyone and the criminal justice system must change and become far more proactive.
Employers have a duty of care to protect staff in their workplace, even more so when they are working in the public service. Every workplace should have a robust stalking policy to protect their staff, and management must be proactive recognising dangers and taking action.
Far greater understanding and support should be given to victims. We need to recognise that the psychological damage inflicted can drive some to suicide.
People take their own lives because they feel they can’t escape from it, or they feel they are not being believed and we need to do far more to ensure as a society we take this crime far more seriously and recognise that it does cost lives.
The alarming thing is that, while these dangerous and risky situations are being allowed to escalate, victims are still not receiving the help and support they need to stay and feel safe.
Stalkers should be classed in the same category as terrorists or sex offenders because of the damage they do. We need to do far more about concentrating on their past behaviours. We need to see their histories or they will simply keep moving from victim to victim. We need to get them on registers and do everything we can to curtail their activities, place conditions on every single thing they do, and if they break any, put them in jail.
Until we treat stalking seriously, we will never properly gauge just how widespread or damaging it is, or develop the proper strategies and laws to deal with it effectively.
We must identify stalkers and their behaviour before it is allowed to escalate. Too often, it is only when they go on to murder that their history is joined up.
This is why we need a register and, if the stalker moves, their history needs to move with them.
It is about risk assessment and management and it could not be more urgent.
Former New Scotland Yard criminal behaviour analyst Laura Richards advises governments and major international institutions, and launched Paladin, the National Stalking Advocacy Service
Enjoy the convenience of having The Sunday Post delivered as a digital ePaper straight to your smartphone, tablet or computer.
Subscribe for only £5.49 a month and enjoy all the benefits of the printed paper as a digital replica.Subscribe