Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 29 July 2014

If you think the law is an ass, read on

What's the best way to encourage frightened victims of domestic violence to pursue charges against their attackers? How about locking them up for a week if they're too scared to give evidence against the man who nearly killed them - that should shake some sense into them!

No, this isn't an urban myth or a chapter from the Taliban book of bedtime stories. It's what happened to Sacha Williams-Rowe, a 31-year-old mother-of-four whose teenage son Morgan found her bleeding and on the point of death outside their house after her partner stabbed her with a kitchen knife.

Ms Williams-Rowe steeled herself to give two harrowing days of evidence against her partner in court before the trial was adjourned when the judge fell ill.

During the retrial Ms Williams-Rowe, on the verge of a breakdown, found she simply couldn't face going through it all again. She hoped, somewhat reasonably, that her previous statements, plus a plethora of witness evidence, would be enough to see the second trial through. Especially as it was being heard by the same judge as the first.

She was on her way to bed, her son Morgan helping her, when police arrived at her house to arrest her for not showing up in court. She was then charged with contempt and given a week long custodial sentence. God knows what Morgan's idea of British justice is now.

Her partner pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and, rewarded for his guilty plea, was given a 15-month sentence for the attack. He will be out in six weeks - not long for Ms Williams to sort out her intended house move, as she's unsurprisingly intimidated by the idea of him popping over to visit.

I know no legal system can be perfect. But there are just too many elements of ours which scream WRONG for us to wave them away with a murmur of 'democracy'.

It's usually women and young people who suffer most at these old judges' hands; social groups they don't empathise with, or have archaic, views of. Whether it's the rape victim who is deemed to have worn provocative clothing or the battered wife whose trembling reluctance to come forward makes her an 'awkward customer' (both of course victims of crimes notoriously under-reported and difficult to secure convictions for), the notion that we must punish those who display human fallibility in the face of an unyielding legal system is merciless. And ridiculous - because The System has too many times proven itself simply not worthy of respect.

I was struck this week by the words of Swedish crime writer and criminal defence lawyer Jens Lapidus who said in a BBC interview that he often 'hates' his client and shivers at the thought of him or her ever coming into contact with his own children. But with unusual honesty, he also admitted that law is 'a game', and that his first feeling when he secures freedom, even when it's for a dangerous sociopath, is euphoria at having won the game.

I understand the principle of the bad guys' right to a defence in a democratic system, but something's gone off course in this particular game. And locking up a terrified victim of violence whose knees knock at the idea of taking to the dock for not respecting legal procedures is damning proof of that.

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