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Cyber stalking on the rise in divorce and family disputes

CYBER stalking and harassment is becoming an increasingly common part of acrimonious divorce and family disputes, a leading law firm has warned.

Family law experts at Ward Hadaway say that the use of social networking sites, instant messaging and other online functions to target and harass individuals involved in disputes is on the rise.

Tactics used by cyber stalkers include publishing malicious information on the internet about a targeted individual, the creation of parody or bogus accounts portraying slanderous information about the other party and written attacks in chat rooms and other social sites.

Jonathan Flower, Partner and Head of the Family and Matrimonial team at Ward Hadaway, said: “Whilst the majority of divorce and family cases proceed with little open enmity between the parties, it is the case that a minority do lead to acrimonious situations and bitter feelings on both sides.

“As with many aspects of modern life, this has the capacity to spill over into the virtual world as people use the opportunities open to them via social media and the internet to vent their anger in public and, in some cases, to target those on the other side of the dispute.

“As a result, there has been a rise in cyber-bullying and cyber-stalking cases which can cause great alarm and distress to the victims and make an already difficult situation considerably worse.”

Whereas cyber-bullying may involve the spreading of malicious gossip about other people, cyber-stalking sees the perpetrator repeatedly using electronic communications to harass or frighten someone.

Examples include sending threatening messages or emails with the goal of unsettling an individual or causing emotional distress by creating feelings of anxiety.

However, Jonathan Flower emphasised that victims of cyber-stalking do not have to suffer in silence as the perpetrators of such acts can face criminal sanctions.

Jonathan explained: “Just because the harassment is being carried out using electronic means rather than physical threats in person doesn’t mean that the person responsible can get away with it.

“There are legal provisions which can be used to prevent cyber-stalking and harassment in the family context with penalties including prison sentences.”

One of the main protections against cyber-stalking is the use of ‘non-molestation orders’.

This is a type of injunction that protects named individuals from direct cyber harassment, abuse and threats of and actual violence from an “Associated person”.

Under the Family Law Act 1996, an “Associated Person” is given a wide definition which includes all family members, including extended family members such as ex-partners, step-family and in-laws.

The Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 has now extended this to apply to cohabiting same sex couples, as well as couples who do not live together or have had children together.

Jonathan Flower said: “This is a very flexible tool which can be used by the courts, who must consider a range of factors when deciding whether to make an Order, including the health, safety and wellbeing of a victim.

“If you believe that this is happening to you it is important that you keep accurate and comprehensive records of the pattern of harassment to present to the court.

“If you succeed in obtaining a non-molestation order then you will have protection from the courts if that Order is breached.

“Breaching a non-molestation order is an arrestable offence which carries a maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment. So it is important to stress that, should this kind of thing be happening to you, there are ways in which you can get protection.”

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