Tackling the cyber stalkers
The internet has helped social landlords communicate with tenants but it has also created a platform for the harassment of staff and residents alike. Carl Brown investigates
‘He made threats against me and my family and I had to take my son out of school because he threatened to kill him.’
This anonymous housing association chief executive has been pursued by a man who has for years held a grudge because he was once evicted from his home following complaints of anti-social behaviour. The former tenant used the internet to threaten the chief executive - on some occasions alleging he was a murderer and a paedophile and at other times pretending to be him.
His employer was forced to take out an injunction against the former tenant who was subsequently jailed for several months. Last week it emerged the harassment had again reached such a level it had been reported to the police.
The story shocked readers of Inside Housing when it was published last week and has brought the problem of ‘cyber-harassment’ into the spotlight.
The internet has opened up means of sharing information, allowing unprecedented opportunities to share knowledge and advice. But what happens when it is used to threaten, bully and harass? And what can you do if your position working as the housing provider for thousands of tenants puts you in the firing line?
The chief executive is by no means alone. At least one other senior housing figure is suffering a similar campaign of harassment, while two years ago Gentoo won compensation from resident Stephen Hanratty after staff were libelled online. Manchester Council is reportedly taking legal action against a person who has repeatedly bombarded different staff members from its anti-social behaviour team with threats and abuse. Another chief executive has told Inside Housing about a tenant who has for years been emailing complaints to his organisation up to 200 times a day, although he drew a distinction between serious harassment and intimidation and mere overzealous complaining.
So how damaging can these internet attacks be?
The lawyer acting for the anonymous chief executive says internet harassment is a real threat because it is so difficult to deal with.
‘There has been a real problem for some time with the internet,’ he states. ‘Once somebody has posted something it can be utterly impossible to take the stuff down. Posters can change their internet service provider numbers or register them in America to avoid UK law.’
Peter McCormack, chief executive of 11,000-home association Derwent Living, says serious harassment and abuse, even in the age of the internet is still very rare but that there can be problems. ‘There is sometimes a difficulty if someone gets your personal number and phones it because they want to go straight to the top.’
Brendan Sarsfield, chief executive of 45,000-home association Family Mosaic, admits he is anxious about tenants who live nearby knowing who he is in case his address is targeted, but he adds that it is important not to hide away. ‘The other side to this is that we deal with vulnerable people, some of whom have mental health problems. The risks frontline staff take are much more than those taken by me,’ he says.
The legal situation surrounding harassment is complex. Under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, harassment is a criminal offence with a jail term of up to six months. Police and the Crown Prosecution Service will decide whether the alleged offence is serious enough to pursue a criminal action and whether it is in the public interest to do so.
Victims can pursue a civil action, including, as in the aforementioned case of the chief executive, taking out an injunction.
Meanwhile employers, including housing associations, have a duty of care to their staff. Richie Alder, partner at law firm Trowers & Hamlins, says they must demonstrate they have taken reasonable steps to protect staff but are under no obligation to investigate harassment claims.
‘Reasonable steps could include putting a filter on emails for instance, and if necessary, reporting the matter to the police,’ he adds. ‘In most cases an employer would not be required to do anything in terms of investigation, although it might if it feels the organisation itself is under threat.’
Mr Alder says if an employee is harassing another member of staff it is a slightly different matter as the employer could be liable.
The Chartered Institute of Housing’s anti-social behaviour action team receives funding from the Communities and Local Government department as part of a £10 million drive to tackle problem behaviour and works with landlords.
It says one of the most difficult areas for housing providers is the online harassment of tenants by other tenants and the extent to which landlords have a duty to investigate.
While Mr McCormack says Derwent Living would only act if the harassment was serious and part of a wider campaign of abuse, Chris Grose, an advisor on the CIH anti-social behaviour action team, says it is ‘something that needs to be investigated in the same way as other [anti-social behaviour] cases’.
Mr Grose says the use of social networking site Facebook to harass or intimidate is becoming increasingly common. ‘It is an area that needs some guidance as I think many landlords may see this as something other than anti-social behaviour or not a landlord’s responsibility,’ he states.
He adds that landlords need to assess the level of risk to the tenant, although obtaining evidence can be problematic. However, harassment cases pursued through the civil courts need the lesser standard of proof (the balance of probability) rather than the higher ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’ required in a criminal case. He says reporting harassment to the relevant websites is also crucial as they can block users or report them to the police.
While technology has the potential to be abused, it has undoubtedly helped social housing providers communicate better with their tenants. Accord Group uses messaging to remind tenants their rent is due, for instance.
Chris Handy, Accord’s chief executive, says: ‘Social media and electronic communication is great, as it increases the way we can communicate with tenants and the wider community. Technology can bring problems but they are outweighed by the massive benefits of the technological revolution.’
For people like our anonymous chief executive, however, that must seem like cold comfort.