Regrettably, the media reports of this case do not report the exact charge though it looks as though it was section 4 of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. Mr Collins was convicted after trial in the Crown Court and it is reported that the jury deliberated for some 12 hours. The media reports indicate that, in the period January to July 2011, Anna Larke was subjected to sustained emotional abuse.
The charity Refuge has commented - "Whilst Refuge is pleased to see that Justin Lee Collins was found guilty of harassment causing fear of violence we are disappointed with the sentence. Awarding a mere 140 hours of community service and payment of £3,500 in prosecution costs does not send a strong public message that domestic violence, or threat of violence, is as serious as any other violent crime. Derisory sentences such as this simply reflect the need for further training to increase understanding of domestic violence and its impact – domestic violence kills two women a week. Until the courts give sentences that fit the crime, men like Justin Lee Collins will get away with campaigns of terror and thousands of women, like Anna, will continue to be at risk.”
Unfortunately, the judge's sentencing remarks have not been made available on the Judiciary website.
The Protection of Harassment Act 1997 - (the 1997 Act) - was originally introduced to deal with stalking but it did not specifically name the offence as that. Instead, it introduced two criminal offences of harassment. The less serious section 2 offence, pursuing a course of conduct amounting to harassment, is a summary one, triable only in a magistrates court - maximum prison sentence is six months. The more serious section 4 offence (putting a person in fear of violence) is “triable either way” (in the Crown Court or a magistrates’ court) and has a maximum prison sentence of five years.
See the 1997 Act - section 1 and section 2 and the more serious offence in section 4 . (Note: the 1997 Act will soon be further amended by the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 but this is not considered further here). The section 4 offence is an "either-way" offence but, if tried in the Crown Court and the jury find the defendant not guilty under section 4 they may find the defendant guilty under section 2.
Where there is a conviction under section 2 or section 4, the court may make a restraining order under section 5.
The 1997 Act section 3 created a statutory tort of harassment which has come to be widely used in relation to workplace situations.
Leaving aside Justin Lee Collins' case for the moment, let us assume that a defendant (D) is convicted of the section 2 offence. When sentencing, the judge must consider the provisions of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 and the judge must follow any relevant sentencing guidelines unless it would be contrary to the interests of justice to do so.
The CJA 2003 sets out the purposes of sentencing (section 142); determining seriousness (section 143); reduction in sentence for guilty pleas (section 144); general restrictions on custodial sentences (section 152) and general restrictions on length of custodial sentences (section 153).
There are some sentencing guidelines for the Section 2 offence - see Magistrates' Courts Sentencing Guidelines - see pages 70 which must be read with page 177.
A small number of incidents might be dealt with in the range Band C fine to high level community order. Clearly, sustained harassment over a lengthy period would make the case considerably more serious. (Of course, there are questions of proof - the sustained harassment has to be proved) Where violence is threatened, the sentencing range becomes 12 to 26 weeks custody.
The Magistrates' Courts Sentencing Guidelines at page 68 contain guidelines for use when a Magistrates' Court sentences a person for the section 4 offence and a starting point of a custodial sentence applies in the vast majority of cases.
Returning to Justin Lee Collins, his sentence certainly seems to be particularly lenient but there may be factors of which we are unaware. Also, having taken the matter through a trial, he would not have the usual sentencing discount (up to one-third) which is applied to guilty pleas. However, 140 hours unpaid work is only a medium level community order and certainly appears to be particularly lenient. It is a pity that the sentencing remarks are not available since those draw to public attention those matters which have influenced the sentence.
It is far from easy to compare sentences for different offences but the treatment by Chorley Magistrates of Matthew Woods for his remarks on Facebook stands in stark contrast.