- The notices
- What is a “Police Information Notice”?
- What counts as harassment?
- The purpose of the warnings
- Information they should contain
- How long should the police keep records about PINs?
- Policy and guidance
- The previous Government’s consultation
- The case of Sussex Police and Tim Loughton MP
- Can you challenge a PIN?
Constituents sometimes ask about the status of Police Information Notices (PINs) which the police may issue where there are allegations of harassment. These notices (sometimes called Harassment Warning Notices) are not covered by legislation, and don’t themselves constitute any kind of formal legal action. One reason the police get people to sign these notices is to show in possible future legal proceedings that a suspect was aware that their behaviour would count as harassment. This is important because the offence of harassment occurs where:
- there has been a “course of conduct” (not just one event); and
- the perpetrator knows or ought to know that their conduct amounts to harassment.
Because signing a Police Information Notice does not mean admitting any wrongdoing, there is no right of appeal. If a person is unhappy about the fact that the warning was issued, he or she could complain to the police force concerned.
2. The notices
3. What is a “Police Information Notice”?
The police may issue notices where there are allegations of harassment. These notices sometimes have various names, including “Police Information Notices” and “Harassment Warning Notices”. They have no statutory basis. They do not themselves constitute any kind of formal legal action. Therefore there is no formal police procedure which must be followed, and no set time limit during which they have effect.
The notices are not formal police cautions, and signing one does not imply that the alleged harassment has taken place. However the police may use them in future legal proceedings, and there is some guidance on what should be included in them. The decision about whether to issue them is purely an operational matter for the police.
4. What counts as harassment?
Library Standard Note SN/HA/299, The Protection from Harassment Act 1997, gives background on that Act. Two points to note are:
Under the Act, it is a criminal offence to pursue a “course of conduct” which amounts to harassment of another person, where that person knows (or ought to know) that the act amounts to harassment;
In cases where one individual is harassing another,1 there must be at least two separate occasions of the behaviour for it to count as a “course of conduct”.
5. The purpose of the warnings
The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) explained how the policy started in evidence to the Home Affairs Committee in 2008:
Early “loopholes” were identified after the enactment of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 when “stalkers” claimed that they did not know that their behaviour (such as sending flowers, cards etc.) amounted to harassment. That their intention was not to cause the victim to be either harassed, alarmed or distressed. To this end, police forces began issuing suspects with a formal notice of warning that the victim alleges that their behaviour does indeed cause harassment, alarm and distress and that, should such activity continue, then a prosecution will ensue.
Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) guidance says that these warnings can be useful in various circumstances. For example:
- when the suspect doesn’t realise that their alleged actions may be a criminal offence
- when only one instance of harassment has occurred (so it isn’t a “course of conduct” under the Act
- when there is evidence of a “course of conduct” but the victim is unwilling to support a prosecution
According to the CPS guidance, there are a number of benefits, including making sure people understand the law; preventing incidents from escalating and helping possible future prosecutions.
6. Information they should contain
The current Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) guidance for the police, issued in 2009, says what should be included in the notices:
A national template for police information notices in cases of harassment is available on the Genesis website. The notice itself should be sufficient to advise the suspect of the following: That the police information notice is not a court order or any form of conviction or caution. The requirements and scope of the PHA. That all allegations of harassment are taken seriously and investigated by the police That harassment, alarm or distress has been caused, or may have been caused, to the victim by specified actions of the suspect (or that this may be caused should the conduct continue or be repeated); That any further, similar conduct could amount to a criminal offence under the PHA. The fact that the police information notice has been received could be used as evidence in any future criminal investigation or prosecution, or civil proceedings taken by the victim. That acknowledging receipt of the notice does not mean that the suspect is admitting any wrongdoing – simply accepting information about the PHA and the police position on investigating allegations of harassment.
It goes on to emphasise that officers shouldn’t suggest that the notice implies guilt.
7. How long should the police keep records about PINs?
In March 2013, the Court of Appeal ruled that retaining such information for more than a matter of months would need to be justified by evidence.
8. Policy and guidance
9. The previous Government’s consultation
The previous Government considered PINs in its 2011 consultation on stalking (for more background, see Library Standard Note 6261, Stalking). In its consultation document, the Government explained that there is no right of appeal against a PIN because signing a notice does not involve any admission of wrongdoing. It did acknowledge concerns, however:
Acknowledging receipt of a Police Information Notice does not mean that the recipient is admitting any wrongdoing – they are simply accepting information about the PHA and the police position on investigating allegations of harassment which includes stalking. For this reason, there is no right of appeal. An individual’s details would not be recorded on the police national computer purely on the basis of a PIN being issued and the existence of a PIN would not in any way be considered a criminal record.
We recognise that there are concerns around the process by which these notices are issued. Some argue that those issued with a Police Information Notice are not given a fair hearing. Equally we are aware that some consider Police Information Notices to lack teeth and that they give victims a false sense of security.
In its response document, published on 24 July 2012, the previous Government said that the public had been concerned mainly with the ineffectiveness of the notices in protecting victims rather than problems for the recipients. It went on to say that the Home Office would be working with ACPO to review the guidance.
As a result of reforms brought in by the previous Government, the College of Policing now provides Authorised Professional Practice guidance to the police. New guidance (which would be part of the wider guidance on harassment and stalking) has not yet been issued.
10. The case of Sussex Police and Tim Loughton MP
In March 2014, the Committee of Privileges considered the actions of Sussex Police in issuing a Police Information Notice to Tim Loughton in 2012. Following a long dispute with a constituent, the MP had made comments in the Commons chamber “sacking” his constituent and complaining about the way the police had investigated a complaint against him. He then sent a copy of the relevant debate in Hansard to his constituent. The police decided to send PINs both to the constituent and to Mr Loughton’s parliamentary office. The Committee found that the police had made mistakes in this case, and that it would view “future attempts to restrict Members’ freedom of speech in the House through PINs as a serious contempt”. Sussex Police accepted the findings of the Committee’s Report, withdrew the PIN issued to Mr Loughton and reviewed their policy. They published updated guidelines in April 2014.
11. Can you challenge a PIN?
As a PIN has no legal force, there are no formal rights of appeal. However, there are two options a recipient who is aggrieved about receiving one could pursue.
A 2010 article by a legal officer at the Human Rights organisation Liberty points out that individuals who feel aggrieved could complain to the force concerned:
What is upsetting is that there is no procedure for appealing against the making of a harassment warning and for many, this can feel highly unfair. The person who is sent the warning can often feel as though they are being prosecuted, especially when they have had no opportunity to present their side of the story. It is of course always open to individuals who feel that they have been unfairly treated by the police to lodge a formal complaint (in the first instance to the police force that issued the warning).
Another option might be to seek judicial review in the High Court, which would need legal advice. Library Standard Note 3207, Legal Help: Where to go and how to pay, gives more information about this. Similarly if someone who has received a PIN wants to check the implications for any future action they might take, they should consider getting legal advice.
Contains Parliamentary information licensed under the Open Parliament Licence v3.0.
External link: Harassment: “Police Information Notices”(PDF, 500.29 KB)
Published: 6 October 2015
Author: HM Government