The below guest blog is written by Victoria*, about her daughter’s experience of giving evidence.
When my daughter, Iris*, was 13, she seemed to change. She became withdrawn, spending an increasing amount of time in her bedroom. I put it down to teenage life and when I asked her about it she said nothing was wrong.
What I didn’t realise then was that she was too scared and confused to tell me the truth.
I remember the day Iris told me that Alex* had been sexually abusing her. We’d know him and his wife for years; Iris looked on them like an auntie and uncle, their children like cousins. I tried to stay calm but my world instantly crumbled around me.
For Iris, disclosing the abuse was like a release. She felt safe that Alex wasn’t going to be able to touch her again. It felt like a step forward and, initially, the response was hugely positive.
We were assigned an amazing officer called Lucy* who supported Iris through all her police interviews. Iris was able to give her video evidence at a local Public Protection Unit – it wasn’t like a police station at all and, whilst the experience was far from pleasant, Iris wasn’t traumatised, and even felt well enough to go back to school after giving her evidence.
The process couldn’t have been made easier for us. I naively thought that a court case would be similar.
But worse was definitely still to come.
Alex was arrested and we were given a court date, scheduled for 9 months later. The year waiting was awful.
A few weeks before the trial we were given a tour of the court, shown the video evidence room and, critically, the two entrances to the court. This was so important to Iris – she couldn’t cope with seeing Alex before the trial.
The trial was due to start on the Monday. But the Friday before, we were told the court location had changed and Iris wouldn’t be able to visit it. She was distraught and the confidence she had felt about giving evidence drained away.
We were determined to ensure Iris didn’t have to see Alex, constantly being on our guard during the long hours waiting to give evidence. Alex and his supporters had been intimidating us since his arrest and we were all nervous about seeing him.
Despite our efforts, the lack of separate entrances meant that we saw Alex and his supporters outside the court when returning from getting Iris some lunch. Seeing Alex devastated Iris, she became much more nervous and stressed. She wasn’t in a fit state to give her best evidence.
I was heartbroken leaving Iris to give her evidence.
I understood why I wasn’t allowed to go with her, but she needed someone there, a professional who knew her and could support her through questioning. Instead, all she had was a stranger.
Iris managed to hold it together through prosecution questions; they were clear and concise and the barrister was sensitive with her. However, the defence barrister couldn’t have been more different. I wasn’t allowed in the court but Iris’ grandmother had to watch as Iris broke down, torn apart by the barrister’s questions – questions she didn’t understand and which were wholly unsuitable for a 14 year old.
When Iris returned from giving evidence she was hysterical. I’d never seen a child in such distress – her eyes were swollen and raw from crying. She was shuddering with tears.
I felt like the defence barrister had destroyed her.
I wasn’t supposed to touch her or be with her as we were both witnesses but I knew I needed to calm her down. I was distraught – I felt powerless and unable to console her.
When Iris returned on the second day for more questioning, we had to consider the very real probability of stopping the trial as we felt that the defence barrister’s questioning was tantamount to abuse.
Our barrister decided that if Iris broke down one more time he would request that trial be stopped as what Iris was going through now was far too traumatic and Alex would walk free. It felt like the defence barrister was trying to upset Iris to the point that this would happen. Iris felt like she was on trial.
Eventually, Alex was convicted, put on the sex offenders register and given a suspended sentence.
We had got justice for Iris but at a great price.
Iris’ court experience felt like a second abuse. One of the worst parts is knowing there are things that could have improved Iris’ experience and avoided the trauma she experienced bringing her abuser to justice. If she had been able to give evidence from a remote location via a video link, she would not have seen Alex and been forced to relive the abuse and intimidation he subjected her to.
If the defence barrister had been more sensitive in his approach, Iris would not have faced the disgusting questioning she did. He asked questions that confused her and that she didn’t understand, she felt threatened and scared. It took her a long time to get over the horror of that questioning.
When we were contacted about the possibility of an Appeal by Alex and a retrial, I was adamant that I was not putting Iris through the trauma of another court case.
I would rather the man who abused my daughter walked free than subject her to what she experienced in that court room again.
No parent should ever have to feel that way; no child should experience what Iris did – especially when there are such simple measures that could have stopped her being traumatised a second time by the court process. Our justice system is meant to protect victims, not abuse them further and I hope that change is made with urgency so that no child, and no family has to experience what we did.
*Names have been changed to protect identity