From the moment Justin Lee Collins was charged with harassment of his ex-girlfriend I took an interest in the case from both a legal and personal perspective. As the case went to trial and was reported on in great detail in the media I began to feel extremely uncomfortable. Innocent until proven guilty is essentially the modus operandi for the legal system in the UK and as a lawyer I am eminently aware of that concept. However, I found myself reading the reports about Collins' behaviour during his relationship with Anna Larke with a sense of dread, recognition and ultimately, an uncomfortable recollection of my own painful memories from my first ever relationship whilst a teenager.
Collins although initially arrested on suspicion of assault was later charged and convicted under the Protection of Harassment Act 1997, an Act largely introduced to close a gap in the law and provide some form of protection and redress for victims of stalkers. Under the Act it is a criminal offence to cause an individual harassment, alarm, distress, or fear of violence by a course of conduct. Sentences under the Act range from a maximum of six months (where the harasser causes their victim distress) to a maximum of two years (where the harasser causes their victim to fear violence).
Yet despite the Judge and jury hearing that the abuse included physical violence causing Miss Larke to fear for her safety, the Judge in summing up stating that 'violence in any relationship was a very serious matter' and the CPS stating 'there was clear evidence in this case that the defendant had subjected the complainant to physical, psychological and verbal abuse during the course of their relationship', the comedian and TV presenter escaped a jail sentence. The sentence of 140 hours of community service and costs of £3,500 has led to a barrage of criticism by domestic violence campaigners that the punishment Collins received makes a mockery of his crimes.
Whilst I agree with them I feel it is important to not do so at the cost of diminishing the legacy of this case in the campaign against domestic abuse. In the last ten days the public have had a unique and disturbing insight into the complex nature of an abusive relationship.
Yes in such a relationship there is more often than not extreme physical violence and it is usually those cases that the courts are confronted with and therefore that the public become aware of. Many of us would have read of the horrific cases of victims beaten so badly they are unrecognisable; suffering injuries that permanently alter their lives and even more tragically those that are killed by their abusers.
But what about the abuse that Anna Larke and countless others experience every day? The pushing and shoving that causes injuries that can be claimed as 'self-inflicted' and/or down to the victim's clumsiness, the carefully inflicted physical abuse that either doesn't cause instantly recognisable injuries or that heal by the time the victim has plucked up the courage to report them. And, as damaging as physical abuse, the verbal, emotional and psychological abuse and bullying that terrorises the victim and destroys their self-confidence and spirit.
Whilst physical scars thankfully often heal with time the emotional damage from abuse can be like a life-long sentence for the victim. I speak from experience.
Domestic violence has come a long way on a rocky road over the decades to be given the attention it deserves as an important issue that must not be swept under the carpet by society but this crime has some way to go not only to offer protection and redress for its victims in the law but also to be truly recognised and taken seriously by society.
As this high profile case has shown, abuse is often multifaceted and it shouldn't be mandatory for blood to be spilt and broken bones for action to be taken against abusers. At present whilst there are laws that can be utilised against abusers, there is no specific statutory offence of domestic violence. It appears to be largely defined as any incident of threatening behaviour, violence or abuse (psychological, physical, sexual, financial or emotional) between adults who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members.
Recently the government announced plans to widen this definition to include coercive control - where the abuser controls the victim in some way, through threats or other means. It is a small step in the right direction to recognising the full extent of such abuse but there is still a long way to go to really tackle this issue which blights so many lives.
Anna Larke's courage in coming forward and pursuing a formal complaint against an ex who was a popular celebrity was a true act of bravery. Despite the personal issues that she has struggled with and vulnerabilities she knew would probably be used against her, she obtained a verdict that will hopefully help her heal, achieve some closure and move on with her life. She also scored an important victory for all those silent victims who suffer similar abuse every day.
As for Justin Lee Collins, who was photographed laughing after the verdict, perhaps he is relieved at not having received a custodial sentence, maybe he is, as said in a formal statement by his PR agent, engaging a legal team to 'consider his options' or hatching a PR plan to re-launch himself. But really, if he had any modicum of good sense, he would recall the words of the Judge in the trial who said it would have been to Collins credit if he had had the courage to admit his violence against his former girlfriend.
The fact is that everyone makes mistakes in life and most people end up hurting others in some form, intentionally or probably for the most part, unintentionally. And it is true that some make much worse mistakes than others. But everyone ought to have the chance to redeem themselves. But it is their choice whether to take that opportunity. The lyrics from one of my favourite Coldplay songs, Clocks come to mind, 'Cursed missed opportunities, am I part of the cure, or part of the disease'. Only time will tell whether Mr Collins seizes the opportunity for true redemption rather than a PR spun re-brand.
Personally I have recently learnt to truly understand and live the meaning of the quote 'to err is human, to forgive is divine'. Hopefully in time Anna Larke and countless other victims of abuse and bullying will too. Perhaps by forgiving but also standing up and being counted we can turn our pain into purpose and become part of the cure.
Ambi Sitham. Author of Laws of Love @lawsoflove_
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