The Lawson case: a word of caution

The zeal with which the police pursued a case against Charles Saatchi shows domestic violence trumps legal principles.

Luke Gittos
Columnist

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Just who do the police think they are? Having publicly launched an ‘investigation’ or ‘probe’ into the photographs of celebrity chef Nigella Lawson being allegedly choked, Charles Saatchi, her husband and the alleged perpetrator, has handed himself in at a police station and been given a caution. Saatchi explained that he had been advised that it would be better to accept a caution rather than ‘have (the allegation) hanging over us for months’.

But both the police and Saatchi’s lawyers seem to have ignored the qualifying criteria for a caution. In order to qualify for a caution, Saatchi would have had to offer a ‘clear and reliable admission’ to the offence. Since the Police And Criminal Evidence Act came into force, the police have been forced to ensure than any purported confession from a defendant is scrutinised to determine whether it has been made under duress. It is clear from Saatchi’s remarks that he made the confession for the express purpose of avoiding a trial. This in itself renders the confession unreliable. Earlier, he had said that the photos showed a ‘playful tiff’ and that he used ‘no grip’ when holding his wife’s neck. Assuming – and I accept it is an assumption – this is what he told police, this amounts to a defence to a charge of assault, not a confession to one.

Further, in order to dispose of the case by way of a caution, there needed to be sufficient evidence to charge Saatchi with assault. But without Lawson giving evidence, it is clear that there would have been insufficient evidence to sustain a prosecution of Saatchi. The photos are entirely ambiguous in their meaning. No one else had come forward to give the photographs any context. The police would have required evidence that Saatchi’s actions were intended to cause an apprehension of physical violence in Lawson, this being the lowest threshold to make out the physical element – the actus reus – of assault. But more importantly, the police would have to have evidence that his actions actually caused Lawson to believe she would be physically assaulted. The police simply could not have had any evidence of such an apprehension without Lawson giving a statement, because obviously she is the only person who could say whether she thought she would experience violence.

But it seems that when it comes to investigating allegations of domestic violence, the police are permitted to throw out the rulebook. Such is the atmosphere around domestic violence that those accused of offences may as well throw their hands up to whatever they are accused of, irrespective of the state of the evidence, rather than be put through a public trial in the papers as well as the courts. The police are, of course, more than happy to waive the normal requirements in order to gain a decent headline in a domestic-violence case.

The Lawson case has highlighted so much of what is wrong about the police’s approach to domestic violence. The gesture captured in the photograph could have had a million different meanings. To launch an investigation and then publicly boast about it on the basis of such ambiguous images shows just how willing the police are to ‘appear’ to be doing something about domestic violence, irrespective of the cost to those they investigate.

The images not only captured a moment at a given restaurant table, but also a moment in a complex relationship, full of its own rules and boundaries, none of which we know anything about. The incessant drive to be seen to do something about domestic violence means the police have effectively become relationship monitors, bestowed with the power to investigate any relationship deemed to be turbulent or ‘damaging’, regardless of whether they have any evidence of any real criminal offence.

Of course, those who are the victims of physical violence require our protection and, in certain circumstances, the protection of the authorities. But it was entirely wrong to announce publicly the existence of an investigation where the only evidence was so ambiguous.

The truly disturbing aspect of the case is that there would have been no chance of the police investigating similar images of non-celebrities without the evidence of the alleged victim. The only reason the police ‘investigated’ the matter at all was because the people involved were celebrities. Not only are the police willing to waive the normal requirements for dishing out cautions, but they are also willing to bend the ancient principle that all citizens should be equal before the law, in order to gain a little bit of positive publicity in their ongoing fight against domestic violence.

This atmosphere of suspicion, thoughtless intervention and public shaming does absolutely nothing for genuine victims of domestic violence. In fact, it cheapens the debate about how and when to intervene in these extremely difficult cases. The police, in their drive to appear proactive in combating domestic violence, are ignoring vital curbs to their powers that govern the vast majority of criminal investigations. The decision to investigate these photographs, and to do so publicly, marks a new low for the police’s desperation for public approval, and illustrates their subjugation to a culture of voyeurism and celebrity. Anyone who takes domestic violence seriously should be worried that the police treat these allegations, or even photographs taken by a nosey parker in a restaurant, in such an arbitrary and partial way.

Luke Gittos is a paralegal working in criminal law and convenor of the London Legal Salon.

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