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Bullies beware: you’re now stalkers under Victorian law

Bullying has been around since ancient times. Wikipedia/Otto Van Veen

Recent changes to the Victorian Crimes Act now mean that repeated acts of bullying are now classified in Victoria under the criminal offence of stalking.

In theory, if not in practice, bullying – either at work, at school or online (cyber-bullying) - is now punishable by a maximum term of 10 years imprisonment.

The implications of this change in legislation could be profound, particularly in light of a recent survey of 5100 workers which found that over 30% reported being bullied at some time in their career, and 1 in 4 over the past two years.

Compared to a similar survey conducted three years ago, there was little change in the rates of workplace bullying. This is despite increased public attention to the problem, highlighted by the suicide of Brodie Panlock in response to persistent bullying, intimidation and abuse by her work colleagues and superiors.

While the perpetrators of Ms Panlock’s severe bullying were fined under workplace safety laws, her case prompted the change in legislation to proscribe bullying as a criminal offence.

This, coupled with other initiatives to criminalise cyber-bullying, has significantly extended the scope of the original stalking offence.

In essence, any “course of conduct” - interpreted in most jurisdictions as 2 or more unwanted acts or incidents - that would cause a reasonable person physical or mental harm, or fear for their safety, is now classed as criminal stalking.

For the victims of persistent bullying, this change in law is undoubtedly welcome and in theory offers some recourse, particularly if “in house” techniques traditionally employed by workplaces and schools (such as warnings or counselling), have failed to curb the behaviour. But the caveat of “in theory” is important.

Despite the introduction of Victoria’s stalking law over 15 years ago, data suggests that it is not being appropriately applied and may be failing to respond to the experiences of victims whose circumstances prompted these very laws.

Justice statistics indicate for example that the criminal charge of stalking is relatively rare compared to the volume of applications for Stalking Intervention Orders.

These orders, which outnumber criminal charges of stalking by at least 5 to 1, are recommended as a “first-line” approach by police given the need to demonstrate that the perpetrator’s acts were intentional (to some degree). Even when stalking convictions are recorded, most attract non-custodial sentences.

Civil libertarians however may be troubled by the low threshold of two or more prohibited acts constituting criminal bullying under this law, and therefore the potential for irritating, but not harmful actions to be prosecuted.

Under the new law for example, bullying can include “using abusive or offensive words to, or in the presence of, the victim”. Raises the prospect of a few of our more colourful parliamentarians wanting to re-consider their language or risk falling foul of this provision.

On balance however, there is no doubt that persistent or chronic forms of harassment, bullying or stalking must be treated seriously, given the substantial evidence of the long term mental health impacts of these behaviours, chief among them depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress and suicidality.

It’s the extent to which this legislation will address a prevalent and in many environments, systemic for of violence that is questionable.

As a community, we often look to the criminal justice and legal systems to prohibit and punish antisocial behaviour, but there are limits to what the law can do to protect victims and prevent unwanted forms of behaviour. Whether the amended anti-stalking law will prove an effective remedy to the problem of bullying remains to be seen.

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