Roxanne Pallett, common assault and the need for careful reflection
ITV’s Emmerdale actress Roxanne Pallett has apparently attracted 25,000 complaints following her exaggerated complaint of assault made against Ryan Thomas, a fellow resident in the Celebrity Big Brother (CBB) house. In keeping with the reality show, the incident was caught on camera after Mr Thomas playfully sparred with Ms Pallett, catching her with a light blow to her arm.
On viewing the footage, it is clear Mr Thomas was play-fighting and was, at worst, over-exuberant, behaving more like an annoying brother than a domestic abuser. Ms Pallett had also been keeping fit by boxing with other residents beforehand, so that Mr Thomas’ decision to playfully spar with her was hardly out of the blue.
However, Ms Pallett complained of pain immediately after the blow, and then walked off into a different room on her own, repeating that she had just been assaulted by Mr Thomas. Subsequently, she spoke at length to the cameras in the CBB ‘Diary Room’ exaggerating that Mr Thomas had in fact struck her 4 or 5 times, and had done so deliberately.
Without expert evidence, it is difficult to say whether Ms Pallett became delusional following the incident due to her state of mind. Certainly, the Big Brother house is not the bedrock of rational thought. But, in the aftermath Ms Pallett genuinely seemed to believe she had been assaulted by Mr Thomas. And, putting aside the camera footage, she seemed to have a very clear case for common assault:–
- Ms Pallett was simply carrying some washing and did not invite any ‘sparring’,
- Mr Thomas undoubtedly struck her without her consent on the arm, and
- Ms Pallett immediately complained of being assaulted, and being in pain.
In law, the incident could have been deemed an unlawful assault if it had been more than mere horseplay - for example where such ‘horseplay’ is being used as a cover for what is actually physical bullying or intimidation. This is, more or less, what Ms Pallett suggested Mr Thomas had done. Mr Thomas was issued with a formal warning by the program. He was fortunate that camera footage existed which quickly cleared his name.
After leaving the house two days later and watching the footage back repeatedly, Ms Pallett has admitted she had over-reacted and apologised profusely. Fortunately, all that is now damaged is her own reputation, which is suffering quite a vicious backlash from some quarters.
No report was made to the police by Ms Pallett, and the matter was withdrawn before any formal investigation of assault. She could get the help she needed without calling 999.
In the real world, police tend to formalise ‘domestic’ allegations very quickly. One wonders what might have happened had Ms Pallet been attended to by police and been asked to give a witness statement without time for further reflection. This is typically what happens when someone calls police reporting a ‘domestic’ assault.
Police turn up with a witness statement notebook, and want to take one there and then. The suspect will invariably be found, and arrested straight away despite any protestations of innocence. In the absence of something akin to camera footage showing the complaint is untrue, a charge of common assault will follow, an offence attracting up to six months’ imprisonment.
The first Court hearing could be as soon as the following day, particularly where the accused has nowhere else to live except the complainant’s home, meaning bail is refused due to the fear of further offences of interfering with the alleged victim. If the plea is ‘not guilty’, a Magistrates’ Court trial will be set down within weeks rather than months. Also, these days it is not unusual for the Prosecution to apply for a witness summons for their own witness (the alleged victim) to have to attend that trial.
All of these steps can, and often do, happen within days of reporting what is classified as a ‘domestic’ assault.
Of course, the police incentive to move quickly in such domestic cases is clear. They fear that truthful complainants will not substantiate their allegation if they are allowed to mull it over for a few days, because this is usually when their abuser will worm his way back in, or intimidate them, breaking their will often due to being in a position of familial influence and/or financial power. In the right cases, taking witness statements promptly and compelling the accuser to attend Court can serve a good purpose. But there is a valid question about whether it is being applied too widely.
Nor is it simple for the alleged victim to then withdraw a formal allegation (incidentally, Ms Pallet withdrew hers during a series of daytime TV interviews). A Freedom of Information Act request showed that during 2016, 160,000 alleged victims of domestic violence withdrew their support for prosecutions. This figure was up from 117,000 withdrawals in 2015. Very often, the Crown Prosecution will not drop these prosecution but simply apply for, and get, a witness summons for trial.
Of course, the tricky part is determining who is withdrawing an allegation because it was untruthful or ill-conceived, and who is being compelled into a withdrawal for all the wrong reasons. In any event, it is a common misconception that the alleged victim has any power to stop the prosecution. Also, every witness statement is prefixed by a statement of truth which reads:
"(This statement) is true to the best of my knowledge and belief and I make it knowing that, if it is tendered in evidence, I shall be liable to prosecution if I have wilfully stated in it anything which I know to be false or do not believe to be true"
It can be very difficult for an alleged victim to persuade the Crown Prosecution Service to drop the whole proceedings, certainly not without rendering themselves liable to prosecution for wasting police time, or worse, attempting to pervert the course of justice. The ultimate decision lies with the Crown Prosecution Service, not the alleged victim.
The Pallet/Thomas affair reminds us that sometimes incorrect allegations are made, and then exaggerated, in a manner which is as alarming as would be obvious - if only we had the truth on camera and audio footage. The accused person has no immediate redress because the police pigeon-hole the case as a genuine domestic assault and so move very swiftly towards prosecution and trial. And once the accuser has given a sworn witness statement, they have also mounted the criminal justice roller-coaster from which it can be very difficult to alight.
In this way, both the accused and the accuser can remain locked into criminal proceedings which neither of them actually want, with the state largely disinterested in any resolution outside a courtroom. Does ‘justice’ in domestic violence cases always have to involve the courts? For Ms Pallet and Mr Thomas, mercifully it did not. Perhaps a period of careful reflection before signing a witness statement is no bad thing.
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Articles are intended as an introduction to the topic and do not constitute legal advice.