Time to treat stalking as deadly crime

Unlike many other countries, Aotearoa lacks a provision in the Crimes Act criminalising stalking, Associate Professor Carrie Leonetti says this needs to change.


Opinion: Last week, the Independent Police Conduct Authority completed their investigation into the police failings in their response to Farzana Yaqubi’s repeated attempts to seek their protection from the stalker who ultimately killed her eight weeks after her first police report.

Yaqubi first made a 105 online report to police in October 2022. She provided screenshots of messages that her stalker was sending her, including one where he threatened to throw acid on her face.

Her file sat inactive for six weeks while police waited for her to come to the station and provide a formal statement.

On December 3, Yaqubi updated her online report, telling police that the situation had escalated and she was extremely fearful that the man might pose a threat to her life.

Three days later, Yaqubi went to the Henderson Police Station and gave a formal statement. She was told that her file would be forwarded to another station near where her stalker lived. When her stalker killed her, the matter had not been progressed any further.

While the causes of the police failure to protect Yaqubi in time to save her life are a complex mixture of police culture and resources, gender bias and cultural insensitivity, and inadequate training and risk assessment by police and judges, there is another contributing cause that is easy to fix.

Unlike many other countries, Aotearoa New Zealand lacks a provision in the Crimes Act criminalising stalking. The absence of a crime of “stalking” in the Crimes Act contributes to the police failure to recognise its seriousness or even that the behaviour is criminal, and makes it more difficult for them to hold perpetrators to account.

Some forms of stalking are criminalised under the Harassment Act, but the definition of stalking in the act is outdated and too narrow to cover many forms of what we now know are dangerous and damaging behaviours.

Trespassing is criminalised under another, even older statute, the Trespass Act.

Carrie Leonetti is an associate professor of law at University of Auckland Waipapa Taumata Rau, and a member of the Coalition for the Safety of Women and Children.
Carrie Leonetti is an associate professor of law at University of Auckland Waipapa Taumata Rau, and a member of the Coalition for the Safety of Women and Children.

Some types of stalking-related behaviours are criminalised in scattered and unconnected sections of the Crimes Act – eg, intercepting and publishing private communications, blackmail, unauthorised access to a computer system, or threatening to harm a person or property.

In Yaqubi’s case, her stalker’s threat to throw acid on her was a threat to do serious bodily harm, a crime under the Crimes Act that carries a seven-year maximum prison sentence.

Criminalising all forms of stalking in a stand-alone section of the Crimes Act would send a signal to police that stalking is a serious, dangerous, and harmful crime, would make it easier for them to identify it as a crime and respond appropriately, and ensure that stalkers who are convicted of this high-risk behaviour face a proportional sentence.

This is what happened when Parliament added a stand-alone strangulation offence to the Crimes Act in 2018 at the recommendation of the Law Commission and the Family Violence Death Review Committee. Like stalking now, strangulation was already a crime, but it had a history of not being treated with the seriousness that it deserved or recognised as a frequent form of family violence.

While stalking is not inherently a gendered crime, it is a common form of intimate partner violence committed by men against women.

The Family Violence Death Review Committee has documented how men who have killed women often had no reported history of physical violence but instead deployed tactics of coercion and control like jealous surveillance and stalking. They noted how, like strangulation, stalking, threatening, surveilling, and making unwanted contact could be a form of escalating behaviour that ultimately culminates in murder.

Prior to the elections last October, the major political parties all committed to criminalising stalking if they were in power, including National. Last week, the Coalition for the Safety of Women and Children submitted proposed stalking legislation to the Minister of Justice and asked him to make good on that promise by enacting the stand-alone crime. The proposed legislation has yet to be introduced in Parliament.

Men are the leading cause of homicide of women in Aotearoa New Zealand (and most of the world). Stalking is often a precursor to femicide and a frequent form of family violence. It is a dangerous crime, and it is time to treat it like one. Before another woman dies.

Media contact:

Sophie Boladeras | Media adviser
M: 022 4600 388
E: sophie.boladeras@auckland.ac.nz