National Stalking Awareness Day 2020 – Stalking & the Law in NI

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National Stalking Awareness Week 2020 runs this week from Monday 20th April 2020 to Friday 24th April 2020.

Many people associate stalking as something experienced only by those in the public eye – we read stories in the papers of a ‘crazed fan’ being found on a high-profile celebrity’s premises or trolling them online and sending unwanted messages. 

Many would not associate stalking with something that would happen to ordinary people in their in ordinary lives.   However, according to the National Stalking Helpline, approximately 45% of people who contact them are being stalked by people they have previously been in a relationship with, while a further one third will have had some prior acquaintance with their stalker.

What is the definition of stalking?

There is currently no legal definition of stalking, though it is generally seen as behaviour which is persistent and unwanted, and which causes the victim to feel frightened, anxious and distressed.  This persistent and unwanted behaviour can take many forms, including the following:-

  • Following, observing and spying on someone.
  • Non-consensual communication, such as repeated phone calls, emails, text messages, and unwanted gifts.
  • Showing up uninvited at the victim’s home school, or work.
  • Driving past the victim’s home or work.
  • Burglary or robbery or criminal damage of the victim’s home, workplace, vehicle or other property.
  • Threatening the victim, their family, or even pets with violence.
  • Harassment of people associated with the victim (e.g. family members, partner, work colleagues).
  • Physical and/ or sexual assault of the victim.
  • Cyber stalking – i.e. conduct or communication via electronic devices which are intended to distress or harass the victim – for example, sending or leaving unsolicited material/gifts, graffiti, and/or messages on social networking sites.
How can I protect myself if I am being stalked?

Stalking was made a criminal offence in England and Wales in November 2012.  However, in Northern Ireland, no legislation currently exists dealing specifically with stalking and making it a stand – alone criminal offence.  In March 2020, the Minister of Justice Naomi Long confirmed that she would be introducing stalking legislation in Northern Ireland as a priority and the Department of Justice is currently working on a Stalking Bill, something that will be awaited with interest.

Presently however, the law has some remedy in place to protect those who are being stalked or harassed.  There are different options available for those who are being stalked by a family member and those being stalked by someone unknown or unrelated to them.

  1. Civil Injunction

The Protection from Harassment Order (NI) 1997 provides a victim with the ability to apply to the Court for a Civil Injunction against their stalker.  This remedy can be used where the victim and perpetrator are not related to one another via blood or marriage and indeed even if the perpetrator is not known to the victim.

A Civil Injunction, if granted, stops a person from harassing, assaulting, molesting or otherwise interfering with the victim, including restraining that person from being able to communicate or contact the victim and, in some cases, prohibiting them from being able to enter a certain property or area.

In order to make an application for a Civil Injunction, there must be evidence of two separate incidents of harassment.  It is therefore important that any incident of harassing or threatening behaviour is logged with the Police.

Civil Injunctions can be applied for on an emergency basis without the perpetrator being notified and dependant on a victim’s income, they may be entitled to Legal Aid assistance.

  1. Non-Molestation Order

Under the Family Homes and Domestic Violence Order (NI) 1998, if a victim and the perpetrator are deemed to be ‘associated persons’, then the victim has the option of applying for a Non-Molestation Order against the perpetrator.   In general terms, the parties are deemed to be ‘associated persons’ if they are family members, have lived together in a familial relationship or have a child together.

If a Non-Molestation Order is granted by the Court, the perpetrator cannot molest, harass, pester, use or threaten violence against the victim. It means that they cannot harass the victim directly (in person, by text, phone, email or social media) and they also cannot get someone else to harass them on their behalf.

The Court can also grant a victim an Occupation Order if they live with the perpetrator or if the perpetrator has some right to reside in their home (for example, if they are on the tenancy agreement or a joint owner). If the Court grants an Occupation Order, this means that the perpetrator they can be removed from the home and barred from returning to it.

The Court can also make an exclusion zone, excluding the perpetrator from a particular place, for example from the street in which the victim lives or the place they work.

Non-Molestation and Occupation Orders can be made on an emergency basis if there has been a recent incident of abuse (usually within the past 7 days). Some Legal Aid assistance is available to anyone applying for these Orders.

If you are the victim of stalking or harassment, you should contact the Police as soon as possible and report this behaviour and also seek legal advice on obtaining protection from the Courts.  There are organisations available to provide such support, such as the Domestic and Sexual Violence helpline (0808 8021414) Women’s Aid, the Men’s Advisory Project and The Rainbow Project.  With the help of the police, legal system and support services, you do not have to suffer in silence.  With the right advice and support, you can put an end to the harassment you are suffering and move forward to a happier and healthier life.

For further information on this area, please feel free to contact us here or leave your contact details below.

Having Contact with your Child in Coronavirus Lockdown

childabductionYesterday evening, the government announced more stringent measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus Covid 19 within our communities.  These measures have effectively resulted in a lockdown, with the nation being told to stay at home and cease all non-essential travel. 

Many separated parents were left confused following this announcement, not knowing whether they could legitimately facilitate contact between their child and the other parent without being in violation of the government guidance.

This morning, Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove clarified that children being taken from one parent’s home to another for contact is permitted during lockdown.  The official government guidance states: “Where parents do not live in the same household, children under 18 can be moved between their parent’s home”.

Following this, new guidance which has been provided to family law practitioners in England & Wales which states that “the decision whether a child is to move between parental homes is for the child’s parents to make after a sensible assessment of the circumstances, including the child’s present health, the risk of infection and the presence of any recognised vulnerable individuals in one household or the other.”

This clarification will be welcomed by many coparenting couples who are keen to ensure they act responsibly in facilitating contact to control the spread of the virus.  However, other separated parents may be concerned either that the movement of their child between households will increase the risk of infection or that they will not be facilitated direct contact with their children due to concerns about the virus.

Unfortunately, where the law stands in this scenario is unclear. While a resident parent cannot suspend contact solely on the basis that there has been a government lockdown, many parents may seek to suspend contact due to concerns about their child’s safety, their risk of exposure to the virus or alternatively their concern about its potential spread if contact is facilitated.  All of these concerns could be considered entirely legitimate in the unprecedented situation we find ourselves in.

I have a Contact Order but am not being permitted contact – what do I do?  

If a parent’s contact with their child has been secured by way of a Contact Order, that parent is at liberty to issue contempt proceedings should the Court Order be breached at any time by the other parent.   However, in the current circumstances, the Court may not be in a position to deal with such an application and even if it did so it may be difficult for a Court to determine that the breach of the Order was not justifiable in the circumstances.

The guidance released today in England and Wales states that where one parent is sufficiently concerned that complying with a Court Order regarding contact would contravene public health advice, that parent may exercise their parental responsibility and vary the contact arrangement to one that they consider to be safe. The guidance goes on to state that; “If, after the event, the actions of a parent acting on their own in this way are questioned by the other parent in the Family Court, the court is likely to look to see whether each parent acted reasonably and sensibly in the light of the official advice and the Stay at Home Rules in place at that time, together with any specific evidence relating to the child or family.”

These coming weeks and months will be a difficult time for separated parents who are struggling to engage meaningfully with one another to reach agreement with how contact arrangements should work.  In the absence of any agreement being reached regarding direct face-to -face contact, all efforts should be made to agree some level of indirect contact via telephone, Facetime or Skype. This level of contact will at the very least allow a child to obtain reassurance and support from both parents at this very uncertain time, as well as ensuring that the parent/child relationship can be maintained, albeit at a distance.

For further information on child contact matters, feel free to contact us here or using the comment box below.

Social Distancing not barrier to Protection from Domestic Abuse

isolation

The world is currently bowing under the pressure of a virus the like of which has never been seen in any of our lifetime – businesses are locking their doors, the elderly and vulnerable are hiding themselves away and it might feel like the whole world is going into lockdown, with help out of reach for many.

Amidst this, people suffering from domestic abuse might feel like they are more trapped than ever. We are all being asked to maintain social distance and self-isolate, but  for a victim of domestic abuse this can lead them to feel even more vulnerable and alone and the need to escape from a partner or loved one might come to a peak.

Domestic abuse is not limited to physical harm – it can cover a whole range of controlling or coercive behaviours, from financial control to emotional abuse.  Anyone can be a victim of domestic abuse, regardless of their relationship to the perpetrator, their gender, age, race or sexual orientation. The elderly might feel particularly vulnerable to controlling behaviours due to the current lockdown, however women, men and children who are self-isolating with family or partners may also be at risk.

If someone is behaving abusively towards you but you are afraid that the current lockdown means you cannot seek help and support, please be assured that the Courts are still hearing emergency applications for Non Molestation Orders if there has been an incident of abusive behaviour within the 7 days prior to an application being made.  These Orders can be granted by the Court without your partner/family member being notified if you are at imminent risk of harm.

A Non-Molestation Order if granted would prohibit your partner/family member from harassing, intimidating or pestering you or threatening you in any way. It is a criminal offence to breach a Non-Molestation Order and the police take breaches very seriously and have dedicated Domestic Abuse Teams to deal with these matters.

A specialist solicitor can provide you with the assistance you need to protect yourself.  Legal Aid is available to anyone seeking a Non-Molestation Order and can be applied for quickly.

For further information, feel free to contact us here.

Equality in Marriage & Civil Partnership now law in Northern Ireland.

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In an historic day in Northern Ireland, same sex couples are now legally able to give notice of their intent to marry to the General Register Office for Northern Ireland.  Allowing for a minimum notice period of 28 days, this means that Northern Ireland will see its first same sex marriages from February 2020.
Today’s change in legislation further allows for heterosexual couples to be able to enter into civil partnerships with one another rather than marry.

Up until recently, whilst same-sex couples were able enter into a Civil Partnership, they were not legally permitted to marry.  In the same token, heterosexual couples were able to marry but were not permitted to enter into a civil partnership.

This progressive change in our law affords all couples in Northern Ireland the option to either enter into a civil partnserhip with one another or to get married.

Is there a legal difference between civil partnership and marriage?

In truth, civil partnerships offer almost identical rights to a couple as marriage, including rights to property, inheritance and tax entitlements.  Should a civil partnership break down, property can be apportioned, maintenance arranged, and assets divided in the same way as these matters are handled in divorce.

Does simply cohabitating with my partner allow us the same rights as if we were married or in a civil partnership?

Generally speaking, you will have fewer rights if you are living together than if you are married or in a civil partnership.

Many people wrongly believe that with the passage of time, cohabiting couples enjoy the same rights as married couples or those in civil partnerships.  There is a misconception that living together for years earns a couple the title of ‘common law husband and wife’ which gives them the same legal rights as married couples or those in civil partnerships, although this is not legally the case.  This misconception can unfortunately lead to a cohabiting couple being left in a vulnerable position should the relationship break down or upon the death of one partner.

For further information on civil partnerships, cohabitation or any other aspect of family law, please feel free to contact us here or via the comment box below.

End of decade marks beginning of Civil Partnerships for Mixed Sex Couples

Today, the last day of the decade, is the day that thousands of mixed-sex couples in England & Wales are expected to enter into civil partnerships.

Up until now, under the Civil Partnership Act 2004, it has only been legal for same-sex couples to become civil partners under UK law. However, a long legal battle by heterosexual couple Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan culminated in a ground-breaking Supreme Court decision in 2018 whereby it was held that the Civil Partnership Act 2004 in this respect was incompatible with human rights legislation.  As a result of this decision, steps have now been taken to extend the law surrounding civil partnerships to include mixed sex couples.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Julian Smith MP indicated in a House of Commons debate back in October 2019 that the Government would ensure that the necessary regulations are in place in Northern Ireland by 13 January 2020 to allow civil partnerships for mixed-sex couples in Northern Ireland.

He went on to state that “From that date, we expect that couples will be able to give notice of their intent to form a civil same-sex marriage or opposite-sex civil partnership to the General Register Office for Northern Ireland. Given the usual 28-day notice period, the first marriages should be able to take place in the week of Valentine’s day”

Cohabiting couples have been the fastest growing family type over the last decade with over 3.3 million cohabiting mixed sex couples in the UK last year. The government has estimated that approximately 84,000 mixed-sex couples could become civil partners in the next year.

Is there a legal difference between civil partnership and marriage?

In truth, civil partnerships offer almost identical rights to a couple as marriage, including rights to property, inheritance and tax entitlements.  Should a civil partnership break down, property can be apportioned, maintenance arranged, and assets divided in the same way as these matters are handled in divorce.

Does simply cohabitating with my partner allow us the same rights as if we were married or in a civil partnership?

Generally speaking, you will have fewer rights if you are living together than if you are married or in a civil partnership.

Many people wrongly believe that with the passage of time, cohabiting couples enjoy the same rights as married couples or those in civil partnerships.  There is a misconception that living together for years earns a couple the title of ‘common law husband and wife’ which gives them the same legal rights as married couples or those in civil partnerships, although this is not legally the case.  This misconception can unfortunately lead to a cohabiting couple being left in a vulnerable position should the relationship break down or upon the death of one partner.

This new change to the law is important as it will now allow cohabiting couples to enter into a civil partnership, giving them greater rights and protections within their relationships, without having to get married.

For further information on civil partnerships, please  feel free to contact us hereor via the comment box below.