Harassment in the United Kingdom

Harassment is a topic which, in the past couple of decades, has been taken increasingly seriously in the United Kingdom, and has been the subject of a number of pieces of legislation.


Though racial and sexual discrimination have been unlawful under the Race Relations Acts and the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 respectively, it is only comparatively recently that specific legislation has defined harassment specifically as unlawful.

Because of the rise recently in awareness of the issues involved in harassment, recent trends have shown significant rises in the number of people making claims of harassment at Employment Tribunals. If the complaint is serious, high damages may be awarded against the Employer, so it is important for the Employer to take seriously any allegation of harassment at an early stage and take steps to quickly resolve it.

There is also legislation in place to be able to deal with discrimination, and this legislation is distinct to that provided under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Race Relations Acts.


Under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997:

"A person must not pursue a course of conduct

  • "(a) which amounts to harassment of another, and
  • "(b) which he knows or ought to know amounts to harassment of the other."[1]

Harassment also occurs when, on the grounds of race, disability, sex, sexual orientation, belief or religion, an employer - or their agent such as another employee or a manager - engages in unwanted conduct which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual's dignity or creating an interrogating, degrading, hostile offensive or humiliating environment for the employee in question. This is wide spectrum, and covers all types of harassment.

Such actions can be:

  • Physical conduct;
  • Verbal conduct; and
  • Non-verbal conduct.

In addition, while the conduct must be unwanted by the recipient, it does not necessarily have to be that the harasser has a motive or an intention to harass. So it is still harassment even if the harasser does not know there is harm caused by their actions.

Employer's liabilityEdit

An employer is liable, as is the case for many other acts, for the actions of their employees during the course of employment. Though it would be relatively easier to prove that a manager or supervisor to the recipient could be guilty of harassing "during the course of employment", it may require more proof if the harasser is in a subordinate position.

Employers can avoid liability for discrimatory harassment if they can prove that they took such steps that were reasonably practical to prevent harassment from occurring.

However, employers cannot use this defence to a claim of harassment under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, under which they will have vicarious liability for the actions of their employees.


The United Kingdom has a "rag bag of statutes" relating to harassment.[2]

Administration of Justice Act 1970Edit

Section 40 of the Administration of Justice Act 1970 creates the offence of harassing a contract debtor.

Protection from Eviction Act 1977Edit

The marginal note to section 1 of the Protection from Eviction Act 1977 refers to "harassment of occupier".

Public Order Act 1986Edit

Section 4A of the Public Order Act 1986, inserted by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, creates the offence of intentional harassment, alarm or distress.

Section 5 creates the offence of harassment, alarm or distress.

Protection from Harassment Act 1997Edit

This Act was primarily created to provide protection against stalkers, but it has been used in other ways.

Under this Act, it is now an offence for a person to pursue a course of action which amounts to harassment of another individual, and that they know or ought to know amounts to harassment. Under this act the definition of harassment is behaviour which causes alarm or distress. This Act provides for a jail sentence of up to six months or a fine. There are also a variety of civil remedies that can be used including awarding of damages, and restraining orders backed by the power of arrest.

Employers have vicarious liability for harassment by their employees under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, (see Majrowski v Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Trust). For employees this may provide an easier route to compensation than claims based on discrimination legislation or personal injury claims for stress at work, as the elements of harassment are likely to be easier to prove, the statutory defence is not available to the employer, and it may be easier to establish a claim for compensation. Also as the claim can be made in the County Court costs are recoverable and legal aid is available.

In Scotland the Act works slightly differently:

  • A jail term of up to five years in very serious cases can be imposed.
  • Civil remedies include damages, interdict and non-harassment orders backed by powers of arrest.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Protection from Harassment Act 1997. http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1997/40 (downloaded 31 Dec 2010)
  2. ^ Cheung, Anne S Y, "Tackling Cyber-Bullying from a Children's Rights Perspective" (2012) 14 Law and Childhood Studies: Current Legal Issues 281 at 289

External linksEdit