O’Sullivan Davies Lawyers brings in the expert to help family lawyers advise stalking victims

28 August 2020

O’Sullivan Davies Lawyers held its first professional development seminar since COVID-19 with Chartered Forensic Psychologist, Dr Lorraine Sheridan, who gave a presentation to O’Sullivan Davies staff and other invited family lawyers on stalking.

Stalking is a common form of targeted abuse that affects up to one in five Australians during their lifetime. Stalking remains poorly understood by both the general public and by responding agencies. Unlike most forms of offending, stalking usually occurs over an extended period and often involves repeated, targeted acts that, by themselves, would not always constitute a criminal offence.

The definition of stalking is best described as ‘a constellation of behaviours which one individual inflicts repeated and unwanted intrusions and communications on another’. Persistence is the key to identifying stalking, which makes it quite different to other criminal offences that often happen quickly or in one act. Stalking is chronic, repeated and there isn’t usually a crime scene.

Studies revealed that victims experience over 100 incidents before stalking is reported. Further, for every stalking victim, an average of 21 people are affected, most commonly family members, friends, colleagues and neighbours who are also impacted by the stalker. 

Stalkers and stalking victims come from all walks of life but are more often highly educated; 43% of stalkers are ex-partners and 75% of victims are female. Stalking is a core element of the cycle of domestic violence.

Dr Sheridan mentioned a case of the youngest known stalking victim, a two-year-old, who the stalker believed they had been married to in a previous life.

According to Dr Sheridan, the major problems in responding to stalking is that there’s a knowledge gap of what constitutes stalking and its effects on the victim. Victims are often given conflicting advice such as ‘ignore it’ or ‘confront them and tell them to stop’ and the unique features of stalking can lead to difficulties in other areas, such as ability to sleep, requirement to move to a new house, change jobs and the like.

Dr Sheridan’s advice is that stalking victims need:

  • To be taken seriously
  • Validation
  • A system that can ‘join the dots’
  • Reassurance
  • Acknowledgement of psychological and emotional harm
  • An understanding of the risk
  • A plan
  • Practical advice to collect evidence

Family lawyers are well placed to assist with advising on evidence collection, which can be difficult for victims to do but it’s crucial in order for charges to be laid. Unlike many other crimes, the victims are required to be active in evidence collection.

Gathering evidence begins with recognising the problem, assessing the context, identifying the risk and then gathering and preserving information such as:

  • Logging the date and time of each incident
  • Describing in detail exactly what happened including how it made the victim feel
  • Contact details of witnesses
  • Phone messages and texts
  • Letters and emails
  • Objects used in the incident
  • Anything else relevant to the stalking

Dr Sheridan said that one of the biggest issues victims faced was being believed and taken seriously.

Dr Sheridan presented to 22 family law professionals in the O’Sullivan Davies boardroom and provided an understanding of stalking, its impact, and how lawyers can best respond to it.