Harassment in divorce - a cautionary tale
- AuthorPhilip Hoddell
Manchester businessman, Matthew Eckersley, has been left ruing the day he tried to save money on legal fees by directly contacting his wife, Zoe, during their divorce. Stockport Magistrates Court found Mr Eckersley guilty of harassment and ordered him to pay a fine of £1,500, despite there being no allegations of violent behaviour and the evidence showing that emails he had been sending were not threatening.
Under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 it is a criminal offence to act in a way which amounts to harassment if the person knows or ought to know that their behaviour amounts to harassment. There has to be at least two incidences of behaviour, and “harassment” can include ‘alarming the person’ and ‘causing the person distress’. Previous courts have found that there has to be an element of intent to cause distress or harm.
Mrs Eckersley told the court that her husband’s constant messaging of her made her physically sick and that her divorce solicitors had already told him not to contact her directly. She said that his actions caused her stress and gave her nightmares, and that he had effectively “terrorised” her.
Mr Eckersley admitted that he had been advised to use private investigators to prove that his wife’s partner had moved into their marital home with her, and Mrs Eckersley admitted that was the case. Despite that, the court still convicted him of an offence which at its most extreme can carry a custodial sentence of up to 6 months’ imprisonment.
Using solicitors to communicate about routine or mundane matters is a very expensive way of having a conversation, and we would ordinarily advise our divorce team’s clients to keep channels of communication open with their spouse if they possibly can. This case demonstrates how careful people have to be; sometimes even acting with the best of intentions can backfire. If there is doubt, or particularly if a specific request has already been made, it is safer to use solicitors effectively and avoid the risk of a potential criminal conviction. I don’t know whether Mr Eckersley intends to appeal the decision, as on the face of it it does seem a harsh one. Nevertheless, on reflection, the money he would have had to spend defending himself in the criminal courts would probably have been better applied to resolving the financial issues with his wife in the divorce courts.
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