Law to tackle bullies

2013-04-29 00:00

STALKERS and bullies who make the lives of others hell are about to get a taste of their own medicine.

A new law called the Protection from Harassment Act allows victims of all kinds of abuse to turn to the courts for protection.

Justice Department spokesperson Mthunzi Mhaga said the act, which came into effect on Saturday, was an inexpensive civil remedy aimed at safeguarding the poorest and most vulnerable members of society.

It extends to children who are bullied at school, pestering by cyber stalkers and sexual harassment.

When a court grants a protection order under the act it will automatically authorise a warrant of arrest for the perpetrator.

The warrant is suspended and carried out only if the order is breached.

If the victim can’t apply for the protection order personally for any reason, including disability, someone else with an interest in stopping the harassment can apply on his or her behalf.

Children under 18 years, or a representative, can also apply without involving the child’s parents.

A senior court official, who did not want to be named, told The Witness that the new law was similar to the Domestic Violence Act (DMV), but “much broader”.

The legal test is easier to satisfy than that required by criminal law, which requires that a case must be proved “beyond all reasonable doubt”.

He said that in a 2009/2010 case in which a Pietermaritzburg teenager laid criminal charges against a group for allegedly subjecting her and her family to a campaign of cyber-bullying on Facebook, the prosecution did not have sufficient evidence to take the case to trial.

Although there was circumstantial evidence, it was not enough to satisfy the burden of proof required for a criminal conviction and it was ultimately decided not to prosecute the suspects.

Under the new act, the teen could have applied to the court for a protection order, which, if breached, could then have resulted in a criminal prosecution.

The teen had alleged that jealousy was behind a campaign against her that involved false sexual, defamatory and insulting comments being posted on a Facebook site for all to see. The site was subsequently disabled.

Police seized the laptops, computers, an iPhone and other equipment from suspects who were identified in the case.

But the investigation became bogged down in red tape as the authorities tried to obtain vital “hard” evidence from the Facebook head office in America, where different laws pertaining to freedom of speech apply.

Louise Bick, head of the pro bono (free legal services) department at Werksmans Attorneys, told The Witness the new act would fill a vacuum in the law and go a long way towards protecting vulnerable people such as women, children and disabled people.

So, said Bick, if a pupil was abused by a teacher or bullied by class-mates, or if a colleague harassed you at work or you fell victim to a stalker who might be a stranger, the legislation offered protection.

Bick said the victim simply had to prove that he or she had a real fear of being harmed as a result of the bullying behaviour.

This could take the form of phone calls, or behaviour such as “following, watching, pursuing, or accosting” the victim, or person close to them, as well as loitering near a place where the victim lives, works, studies or happens to be.

Bick said it was especially welcome that the new law allowed someone else to obtain an order on behalf of a victim who could do it themselves.

Another important aspect is that in cases of electronic harassment on the Internet or in an e-mail, the court can order the service provider to supply the names and addresses of culprits.

In cases where the victim doesn’t know who is responsible for the harassment, the court can instruct the police to investigate.

• ingrido@witness.co.za

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