Law guide: Complaints and disputes

See how we helped Liz

"It's not just a website... there are people there on call who can help answer your queries."

Liz W, London

Intimidation and harassment

Intimidation and harassment


Intimidation or harassment is a personalised form of anti-social behaviour, specifically aimed at particular individuals. People experience repeated incidents and problems of intimidation and harassment day after day. In some cases, the victim and the perpetrator live close to each other, often as neighbours. The intensity and frequency of incidents, combined with the proximity of victim and perpetrator, not only makes harassment and intimidation extremely distressing, it also makes it difficult for recipients of this kind of abuse from taking a stand and speaking out against the behaviour.

What can be done?

Local authorities have a responsibility to take immediate enforcement action to protect those who are being harassed or intimidated. This may be through an injunction or an interim ASBO (which may be obtained without notice to the defendant in Scotland and Northern Ireland) or a Community Protection Notice (in England and Wales) and can provide immediate relief and raise confidence in the ability of local agencies to tackle this sort of anti-social behaviour.

Anti-social behaviour orders and injunctions and Community Protection Notices are available to protect people from behaviour causing harassment, alarm or distress. An order on conviction may be appropriate where someone has been convicted in court for an offence related to their intimidation or harassment of another person. Where action is taken in a county court in Scotland and Northern Ireland, an ASBO can be made against a party to the main proceedings or another adult whose conduct is material to the proceedings. In England and Wales a Criminal Behaviour Order may be obtained where an offender has been convicted of an offence and has engaged, or is likely to engage, in conduct likely to cause harassment, distress or alarm to others and the order is likely to prevent this in the future.

Conditions of the orders may include a ban from the area where the victims live or a specific ban on approaching or communicating with the victims. Because these court orders are made in civil proceedings, hearsay evidence can be used to protect victims who are too scared to come to court.

For more information on ASBOs and anti-social behaviour in general, see our Solutions (England & Wales) and Solutions (Scotland & Northern Ireland) sections.

One of the most common forms of harassment is malicious or nuisance telephone calls. This includes both landline and mobiles. Abusive, annoying, harassing, obscene or threatening telephone calls are an invasion of your privacy. There are a number of things that you can do to limit these types of calls, ranging from contacting your telephone service provider to changing your number. There is also legislation specifically aimed at nuisance calls which we'll discuss below.

Injunctions may be made under Housing Act or Housing (Northern Ireland) Order 2003 provisions, where the harassment or intimidation is housing-related, or under section 222 Local Government Act 1972 or Article 116 of the Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 1972, which enables local authorities to take court action to promote or protect the interests of the inhabitants of their area.

Eviction of the perpetrator is another option, moving the individual away from those whom they are intimidating or harassing. It is important that this is accompanied by other action, such as an injunction, to ensure that the behaviour does not reoccur in a new area, or that the perpetrator does not return to the area to intimidate those who assisted the eviction action.

Criminal harassment

Intimidation or harassment may constitute a criminal offence under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 in England & Wales or the Protection from Harassment (Northern Ireland) Order 1997 in Northern Ireland (collectively referred to as 'PHA'). A restraining order may be made in addition to the conviction, or an injunction obtained.

The PHA is the main criminal legislation dealing with the offence of harassment. It can cover a wide range of conduct and behaviours, including racial or religious motivated harassment, and could also be used to prosecute certain types of anti-social behaviour where these amount to 'harassment', such as playing loud music, barking dogs or noisy house repairs.

In England and Wales, it is an also offence to cause harassment, alarm or distress under the Public Order Act 1986. This carries a £1,000 fine or a penalty notice of £80. If the offence is committed with intent to cause harassment, alarm or distress, the offender can be given 6 months' imprisonment or a fine.

The PHA creates a criminal offence of harassment. S1 (1) of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 and Article 3(1) of the Protection from Harassment (Northern Ireland) Order 1997 state:

A person must not pursue a course of conduct:

  • which amounts to harassment of another; and
  • which they know or ought to know amounts to harassment of the other.

Proving harassment to secure a conviction

To obtain a conviction for criminal harassment, the prosecution needs to prove beyond all reasonable doubt, three elements:

  • the defendant has pursued a course of conduct
  • the course of conduct amounted to harassment of another person
  • the defendant knew or ought to have known that the course of conduct amounted to harassment

Harassment is defined as causing alarm or causing distress, and a course of conduct which can include speech must involve conduct on at least 2 occasions. The incidents do not have to involve the same type of behaviour on both occasions.

Penalties for harassment

In the magistrates' court in England and Wales

Criminal harassment is a 'summary only' offence dealt with by the magistrates' court and carries a maximum sentence of:

  • 6 months' imprisonment; and/or
  • an unlimited fine.

Upon conviction, a magistrates' court can make a restraining order, breach of which carries a maximum sentence of 5 years' imprisonment.

Conviction in Northern Ireland

Criminal harassment in Northern Ireland carries the following maximum sentences:

  • On summary conviction – 6 months' imprisonment and/or a fine not exceeding £5,000
  • Conviction on indictment – imprisonment for a term not exceeding 2 years and/or a fine

Upon conviction, the court can make a restraining order, breach of which carries the following maximum penalties:

  • Conviction on indictment – imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years and/or a fine
  • On summary conviction – 6 months' imprisonment and/or a fine not exceeding £5,000

Additional civil injunctions in the county or high court

In addition to the criminal sanction, a civil court (county court or high court) can also impose civil injunctions in harassment cases as well as awarding damages to the victim for the harassment.

The PHA makes a breach of such an injunction a criminal offence, which is:

  • punishable in the magistrates' court with up to 6 months' imprisonment, and/or an unlimited fine; or
  • punishable in the crown court with up to 5 years' imprisonment and a fine.

This is unusual, as the normal sanction for breach of the terms of an injunction is contempt of court proceedings in the civil court that ordered the original injunction.

Harassing phone calls

A person who makes indecent, grossly offensive, obscene or threatening calls to another, via the telephone system network, is guilty of an offence under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003.

It is also an offence under that section to persistently use a telephone network for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety, or to use it to send false messages for that purpose.

Where there is persistent misuse of the telephone network, they can be made to pay compensation to the victim and fined an amount OFCOM deems to be appropriate, up to £2,000,000.

In some cases (e.g. where the malicious calls are one element of a wider charge, such as breach of an injunction, where there have been threats to kill etc.) the defendant could be held in contempt of court or charged with grievous bodily harm or actual bodily harm under the Offences Against the Person Act.

It is also an offence to send an indecent, offensive or threatening letter or other form of electronic communication to another person in the terms of:

  • In England & Wales, s1 of the Malicious Communications Act 1988
  • In Northern Ireland, Article 3 of the Malicious Communications (Northern Ireland) Order 1988

There is separate legislation dealing with hoax calls which we discuss in our Hoax calls section.

Copyright © 2024 Epoq Group Ltd. All trademarks acknowledged, all rights reserved

This website is operated by Epoq Legal Ltd, registered in England and Wales, company number 3707955, whose registered office is at 2 Imperial Place, Maxwell Road, Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, WD6 1JN. Epoq Legal Ltd is authorised and regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA number 645296).

Our use of cookies

We use necessary cookies to make our site work. We would also like to set some optional cookies. We won't set these optional cookies unless you enable them. Please choose whether this site may use optional cookies by selecting 'On' or 'Off' for each category below. Using this tool will set a cookie on your device to remember your preferences.

For more detailed information about the cookies we use, see our Cookie notice.

Necessary cookies

Necessary cookies enable core functionality such as security, network management, and accessibility. You may disable these by changing your browser settings, but this may affect how the website functions.

Functionality cookies

We'd like to set cookies to provide you with a better customer experience. For more information on these cookies, please see our cookie notice.