Comedian Justin Lee Collins was recently convicted of harassment. He was found guilty of “causing fear of violence” against his former girlfriend, Anna Larke, and was sentenced to 140 hours of community service.

According to evidence given by Ms Larke, the Bristolian television presenter’s campaign of harassment included verbally abusing her, telling her to dispose of DVDs starring actors she found attractive and insisting that she faced him when she slept.

In his defence, Collins claimed that conversely it was Ms Larke who was obsessive and jealous, and that the relationship was “absolute hell”.

Collins was convicted under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, which was originally designed to prosecute stalkers. The sentence handed down to Collins has been considered by many, including several women’s charities, to be too lenient, and it is thought that this could be in part because of a character reference given by his former wife, confirming that he had never been violent towards her.

Ms Larke’s family has stated that they intend “to go out into the world and use this experience to empower women to stand up to domestic abuse.” They have also stated their intention to campaign “to have emotional abuse properly recognised in law”.

In September, the Government announced plans to amend the statutory definition of domestic violence to encompass two new elements. Firstly, the definition will include coercive behaviour, in addition to physical violence. This means definition would cover the behaviour that Collins was found guilty of. Secondly the definition is extended to recognise that those aged 16 or over may also be victims of domestic abuse.

The definition will include, but is not limited to, abuse considered to be:

  • psychological
  • physical
  • sexual
  • financial
  • emotional

These amendments are expected to be in place by March 2013.

However, the amendments are not a change to criminal law, although clearer recognition within the civil courts that a pattern of controlling behaviour can constitute abuse, in addition to an incident of physical abuse, is certainly a step in the right direction.

The extension of the definition to include those over the age of 16 has also been welcomed. Previously, the definition excluded those under the age of 18, despite the finding that those between the ages of 16 and 24 are most at risk of domestic violence, and 40% of teenagers experience abusive intimate relationships (see related links).

Comment

Whilst the extension of the definition is definitely a move in the right direction, and will in theory enable more civil injunction protection to be sought against abusive partners, it will by no means provide guaranteed safety for people at risk. Educating children as to what is unacceptable behaviour within a relationship should be incorporated into the school curriculum. Young adults should be encouraged to come forward and know how to access the support they need to escape from an abusive relationship.

However, with hundreds of people being turned away everyday from refuges that are at capacity, charities are desperate to see increased funding in order that they may reach out to more women in need.