The criminal justice system must do more to support victims of crime argues Sophia Cooke
Content warning: this piece contains descriptions of partner abuse and domestic violence, as well as content on the impacts of trauma and mental illness.
It is well-known that abusive relationships can have long-lasting impacts on the mental health of those who suffer them. Anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), amongst others, are common in those who have been emotionally and physically abused. However, it is not just the relationships themselves that can have these effects but events in their wake too.
Victims or survivors of intimate partner abuse (IPA) have typically been manipulated for a significant period of time into thinking there is something wrong with them and that the way they were treated was their own fault. They are often very vulnerable and untrusting of others. A widespread lack of understanding of IPA means victims often face suspicion and disbelief when they disclose what they have been through, which can be extremely hard to deal with.
Rebuilding confidence and a sense of self-worth through this confusing and painful time can be a tough journey. So, what happens when, during this process, victims have to relive their ordeal in a courtroom, baring all and being criticised and judged, while their ex-partner sits listening? I can’t speak for everyone, but for me it was incredibly traumatic.
In February 2017, I reported my ex-partner to the police. I gave a statement in which I described how he had subjected me to a year of emotional and physical abuse, ending in a final incident which left me with multiple injuries and a damaged phone and car. It had taken huge persuasion by my parents to convince me to report as I blamed myself entirely, having been convinced by my ex-partner that I was a “bad person”, “mentally ill” and “broken”.
This was my first encounter with the justice system and I had no idea what to expect. The police response was fast and the officers were kind and patient so I felt I was in good hands. However, as the weeks and months went by, I became increasingly surprised by the way the case progressed.
The day after I gave my statement, my ex-partner was arrested. As with all criminal proceedings in England, the case was handled by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) who decided he should be charged for assault and criminal damage but relating only to the final incident. Although I had reported multiple previous assaults in my statement, no charges were made for these as, I was told, they either happened too long ago or would not make a difference to any sentence imposed.
The final incident was, therefore, treated as a one-off, something I struggled with a lot. What had happened to me was not just a single event. It was a process that had taken over a year of my life. Having this event considered in isolation made me feel like my experience wasn’t understood and that everything else I had been through didn’t matter.
After one month, there was an initial hearing at which my ex-partner pleaded not guilty. The trial date was set for three months later. I am aware that the wait can often be much longer but, to me, this felt like a lifetime. For those months, I was barely able to think about anything but the case and I had to put my PhD on pause. Within the first few weeks, I lost significant weight and throughout the delay I suffered regular panic attacks, extreme anxiety, nightmares and other symptoms of PTSD. I spent days under blankets and longed for it all to be over. Fortunately, I started receiving support from a victim support volunteer. She was phenomenal and helped me through the process, which made me feel better able to cope with the wait.
When the day of the trial finally arrived, I waited in a witness room at the court nervously reading through my statement. I had been asked previously if I wished to give my evidence via video link, but it had been suggested that I might be taken less seriously, so I had chosen to be there in person. My parents were allowed in with me and there were support staff present who were kind and helpful. I had previously been shown around the courtroom which had helped me to prepare myself but the whole thing still felt surreal and terrifying. After six hours of anxious waiting, I was told there was not enough time to hear the case and that the trial had been adjourned for a further four months until September. I left in a daze.
I remember almost nothing of the two weeks that followed – I remained in a state of shock. I had built myself up to the trial and needed it to be over. I was stuck in a state of limbo, unable to heal or to move forward with my life. My symptoms became worse and I felt like I was constantly switching between debilitating panic attacks, intense fear and feeling low and hopeless. I would regularly be in tears, tucked into a ball. I went abroad for a while to escape which helped, but as soon as I returned my mental state worsened again.
By the time the second trial date came along, I was extremely fragile. It took everything I had to find the strength to prepare for it. To try to reduce my fears, I practised speaking about what had happened to friends and family. Getting through it without becoming dazed and shaky was impossible, but I was determined to make it to the trial.
Although I knew it was going to be an ordeal, nothing could have prepared me for the trial and the impact it had on me. The CPS allocated a prosecuting lawyer to the case but, until the day of the trial, I was not told who this would be. She arrived just ten minutes before the trial was due to begin and seemed unfamiliar with the details of the case. She was missing at least one witness statement and kept getting my name wrong. I felt powerless and struggled to keep my panic at bay. Had I been able to meet or even speak with her in advance, I am sure this would have calmed my anxiety and fears considerably.
My ex-partner’s situation was very different. As the defendant, he was able to hire a barrister of his choice and prepare with her for months beforehand. This seemed unfair and was very intimidating. I had spent so long trying to be free of his control, yet here I could feel it again.
After an initial introduction I was called to give my evidence. The CPS lawyer asked me to go through the events relating to the final incident in my statement and asked me some questions about it. This unsurprisingly triggered my PTSD and by the time the defence barrister took over I was spaced out and mentally exhausted.
I was not expecting to be given an easy time by the defence, but I was not prepared for the questioning I received, which lasted over an hour. I was criticised, judged and attacked. I was told I had cried too much at the beginning of my statement and not enough at the end. It was suggested I was too strong to be a victim of abuse and that, as I was an intelligent person, I would have run away and found help if he had been assaulting me. Any attempt by me to explain my behaviour in the context of the manipulation and abuse in the relationship was quickly stopped due to the decision to treat the incident in isolation. I felt silenced, ridiculed and ashamed.
During the questioning I felt myself become increasingly triggered, until I could barely see the room in front of me. I had been told beforehand that I could ask for a break if I needed, but I became so out of it, I did not think to ask and no one ever questioned if I was okay. Finally, the barrister said she was finished and I was led out. I left feeling torn apart and numb, and nervously waited for updates from my friends and family.
The magistrates had not called a stop to my questioning, yet I learned that immediately after I left they asked the barristers to speed up the trial. It still hurts to know that something that had affected my life so much wasn’t given sufficient time to be considered properly. If time was limited, why was I questioned for so long? Following this, only one out of three other prosecution witnesses was called and my ex-partner’s questioning was kept far shorter than mine, with his version of events going largely un-challenged.
Evidence I felt to be key to the case either did not feature or seemed poorly presented. I was accused of using my phone – which I had said in my statement he had broken – after the incident, yet my phone records, which the police had supplied to the CPS, were never mentioned. Photographs of my injuries were presented by the CPS lawyer in black and white, as the colour printer was apparently broken. This rendered some bruising invisible, leading the defence barrister to question whether those injuries had existed at all. The decision to treat the incident in isolation meant that evidence relating to my allegations of previous assaults was also not used. I felt like my whole experience was over-simplified and belittled. I had been waiting for this trial for seven months and to feel the case rushed through was incredibly distressing.
Throughout the trial, my ex-partner’s “promising career” was frequently referred to. We were in equal positions in our careers, yet my PhD and the impact of the situation on my work did not feature. I still don’t understand if the fact that he was academically successful was being used to imply that he could not have hit me or to suggest it should go unnoticed if he had. Having his intelligence used in his favour while mine was used against me felt unjust.
In the end, my ex-partner was found guilty of criminal damage but not guilty of assault. He was given a Conditional Discharge for twelve months and, seemingly having decided that I was not at risk from him, the magistrates did not impose a restraining order, leaving me feeling very vulnerable.
I suffered badly in the weeks following the trial. My ex-partner gave interviews to several national newspapers, saying that I had made the whole thing up. I received insults and threats from online trolls. Although I had a strong support network, as well as help from Women’s Aid, my PTSD symptoms intensified and I struggled to be in noisy or public places. I had frequent flashbacks to the trial which would leave me shaking and fighting the urge to tuck myself into the nearest small space. I remained unable to work and some days even simple tasks such as showering were impossible. Eight months later, although I have improved, I have still not fully recovered.
In England and Wales, it is estimated that one in four women will experience IPA in their lifetimes, yet an estimated four in five victims do not report it to the Police. Of those who do, many subsequently withdraw, highlighting the need for a more supportive process. The police now consider IPA a priority but, while it is good that people are being encouraged and helped to report, that support and understanding needs to extend to the courtroom. Looking back, I am astonished that throughout the trial process there seemed little consideration of my mental health and the long-lasting damage the trial could cause and I know I am not alone. Given the known mental and emotional impacts of IPA and other intimate crimes, I feel that it is both vital and urgent that further steps are taken to protect the mental health of victims during criminal proceedings.
Photo by Oscar Keys, copy-right free. It depicts a woman covered with blindfold against a blue sky