Conviction of Justin Lee Collins: What you need to know about harassment

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The recent conviction and sentencing of TV presenter, Justin Lee Collins for harassment raises the issue of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, and the way in which that Act operates in practice.

This Act was expressly drafted to protect women who are the victims of physical and emotional abuse by their partner, as well as those troubled by "stalkers". However the Act can also be used in child abuse cases, where children are physically or sexually abused by teachers or care workers.Section 1(1) of the Act states that 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. Section 3(1) of the 1997 Act states that an actual or apprehended breach of section 1 may be the subject of a claim in civil proceedings by the person who is or may be the victim of the course of conduct in question.

So not only are there criminal sanctions, but the victims can take out a civil claim against their abuser as well. Normally child abuse compensation claims are covered by torts such as assault or battery, but the Act creates its own free standing right of action, and it allows damages for "anxiety" which is not always covered by a personal injury claim based on negligence.

The Act stipulates precisely what is meant by "harassment". Section 4(1) states that a person whose course of conduct causes another to fear, on at least two occasions, that violence will be used against him is guilty of an offence if he knows or ought to know that his course of conduct will cause the other so to fear on each of those occasions.  Section 4(2) states that for the purposes of this section, the person whose course of conduct is in question ought to know that it will cause another to fear that violence will be used against him on any occasion if a reasonable person in possession of the same information would think the course of conduct would cause the other so to fear on that occasion.

Section 7(2) of the 1997 Act states that references to harassing a person include alarming the person or causing the person distress. Section 7(3) states that a course of conduct must involve conduct on at least two occasions.

The Act can also fix an employer with liability, under the doctrine of vicarious liability, but it also catches anyone else who helps the abuser. Section 7(3A) of the 1997 Act states that a person's conduct on any occasion shall be taken, if aided, abetted, counselled or procured by another.

(a)  to be conduct on that occasion of the other (as well as conduct of the person whose conduct it is); and

(b)  to be conduct in relation to which the others knowledge and purpose, and what he ought to have known, are the same as they were in relation to what was contemplated or reasonably foreseeable at the time of the aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring.

Finally you can "harass" someone by words alone. Section 7(4) of the 1997 Act states that Conduct includes speech.   

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