Last Tuesday Deirdre Kenny, our Deputy CEO  and  Maeve Lewis our CEO presented the testimonies of survivors of childhood sexual abuse to the Oireachtas Committee for Justice to highlight the need for reform in the Justice system. We have made 6 recommendations for change to the court environment and court procedures which impact on complainant witnesses in trials of sexual crime.

 Also present were our colleagues from The Rape Crisis Network, and Men’s Aid . All with a common objective; to improve the experience of vulnerable witnesses in the investigation and prosecution of sexual offences. 

 One in Four welcomes the commitment of the current Government, particularly the Minister for Justice and her Department, for their work on implementing the important recommendations made in the O’Malley Report.

 The criminal justice system is relied on by survivors of sexual violence to in part help them address their traumatic experience.  In reality we know the real cost to them is re-traumatisation. 

The law is applied to the crime, but very little attention is paid to how the system interacts with the personal impact of the crime. 

At One in Four we have developed wide experience in assisting survivors negotiate the complex terrain that lies between their personal traumatic experiences of childhood sexual abuse and the legal system. In 2016 we completed a study called Only a Witness. It brought to the forefront the voices of the survivors, as co-researchers, in order to identify their experiences of the criminal justice system and to provide constructive analysis. Our observations today are based on our expertise and the voices of those who have been through the system. We hope they may be of some value to your deliberations.

 Trauma is undoubtedly an invisible witness in our courtrooms. If we are to improve the experience of vulnerable witnesses we need to direct attention to how the system can integrate insights on the impact of trauma. Sarah from our study said

 “It was so inhumane…I never felt the system in any way valued me as much as it valued him – never!” 

 There are a variety of experiences that can provoke trauma. The psychological responses people have to stressful events will be different for everyone. A person’s resilience, their support system, age and history will all influence their responses to the dynamics of trauma.

It is clear however that for many people the effects of trauma can be severe and debilitating. This is particularly so with sexual and domestic violence, which happen in a complex relational context characterised by manipulation and abuse of power and trust.

 In the context of childhood sexual abuse, the child is subtly drawn into the sexually exploitative relationship, manipulating particular vulnerability, instilling secrecy, fear, feelings of guilt and responsibility in the victim through a process of ‘grooming’. This abuse can have a profound impact on the development of the child and the child has to adapt psychologically in order to survive. 

 Coping mechanisms for those who experience trauma include: splitting off conscious knowledge of the abuse, dissociation – mentally cutting off during the physical act of abuse, internalising feelings of shame and self-blame, and rationalising and minimising the abuse.

 The court requires the witness to give a sworn testimony of traumatic events in an environment that often mirrors the power and authority dynamics of the persons’ past experiences of sexual abuse; they become distressed and can only respond in the same way as they did to the original trauma. 

Harvard Professor of Psychiatry, Judith Herman, remarks that “if one sets out intentionally to design a system for provoking symptoms of traumatic stress it would look very much like a court of law.

Barbara described the ongoing impact of revisiting the initial trauma while giving evidence. 

 I couldn’t go up there and give my evidence again. I just could not do that. It’s one of the most awful things that I had awful trouble with afterward. I’ve gone to counselling and the rest. They had a booklet of the house where I was born and that house is in ruins now and they have pictures of each of the rooms and the rooms where I was abused. I’m still having trouble getting that out of my head. That was gone but it’s in my head again. I have a little girl and a son and I have to take care of them now and if I’m going to be really upset by things like this I am not going to be able to.

Traumatic stress affects a witness’s ability to deliver a consistent and credible account, perhaps casting doubt on the reliability of their testimony. Some people experience flashbacks to the incident while they are giving evidence, causing disorientation and confusion, as well as acute fear and distress. In a flashback, a person can lose all awareness of present surroundings and live through the trauma as though it were happening again. Unfortunately, people experiencing a flashback may be unable to recognize that it is a flashback. This is something myself and the team regularly witness while supporting survivors in court. Emily describes feeling re-traumatised and re-victimised by the process:

 ‘’It’s a really weird experience and I think afterwards it’s really traumatic. I think I was so caught up in what was happening I didn’t realise that in 6 weeks’ time when I look back on this it’s going to be the most horrendous experience, like a delayed reaction. At that time everyone was talking about you as if you were brainless and just really reinforcing your own negative beliefs about yourself.’’ 

 Self-harm is a risk factor rarely mentioned in this context but is a very live issue for One in Four staff supporting witnesses at court. 

 In order to facilitate witnesses to give the best account of themselves in court it is important to understand how the trauma is triggered in a court setting or at any point through the process. 

Anne describes her feeling of powerlessness during her cross-examination;

 And so the powerlessness you feel of what happened to you just comes back again. I mean you’re totally powerless in that room, you can’t gasp. You can’t go Oh my god, you can’t go oh this is terrible. You have to sit there and be like a stone wall. Ok fair enough there has to be a certain thing that they can’t have chaos. But why the cruelty?

 It is for this reason One in Four recommends an Impact assessment be carried out on how the court environment and court procedures impact on complainant witnesses in trials of sexual crime. 

An impact study of this nature should examine the various interactions witnesses have with the system and its personnel, the likely trigger points for re- traumatisation and how these could be mitigated. 

 We have observed in court how language, tone of voice, the style of questioning and the use of silence are all devices that can either reassure or trigger a traumatic stress response in a witness. This is an area we feel deserves immediate attention. Sarah said;

 I think overall I was probably on the stand for, give or take, four hours. I can’t tell you how horrific it is being cross-examined. To this day I can hear that barrister’s voice in my ear crystal clear to this day. It feels like that is never going to leave me and my only saving thing is that I never once looked at him. I picked a spot on the wall and I looked at that for a solid four hours and I actually couldn’t tell you what he looked like but if I heard his voice today I would know him straight away and it’s horrific. 

 While this needs to be part of an impact assessment, One in Four also recommends a code of conduct be established for barristers questioning vulnerable witnesses. This should address the use of accessible language and the format of complicated questions.  

The special measures for vulnerable witnesses introduced in Ireland in recent years are not easily accessed by adult survivors of child sexual abuse. The eligibility of victims for these special measures often causes confusion for Gardaí and witnesses. One in Four recommends that the eligibility for special measures be broadened to include adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Ideally the decision to give video link evidence or use a screen would rest with the adult complainant witness rather than the trial judge. However where an application to the court is required it should be made when the trial date is being set. This will give some certainty to the witness on the circumstances they can expect to give their testimony.   

 Screens are not commonly used yet in Ireland; recently a client was shown the screen in the courtroom before her case was due to go ahead. She declined the opportunity to have the DPP apply for use of the screen as she could see her own reflection in the screen and felt it would not be helpful. 

 The video link room in the CCJ in Dublin is quite small and the door which is locked while the witness gives evidence is behind them as they sit at the screen. Many adult survivors of child sexual abuse will tell you they feel uncomfortable if they are not able to see the exit when sitting in a room. While video link evidence creates a distance from the accused, it does not necessarily make the experience less traumatic.

These are a simple example of the need to examine how these measures in practice assist or impact witnesses. 

To sum up, our recommendations are

  1. An Impact assessment is carried out on how the court environment and court procedures impact on complainant witnesses.
  2. The impact study should examine the various interactions witnesses have with the system and its personnel, the likely trigger points for re-traumatisation, and how these could be mitigated.
  3. This should include everything from the geography of the courtroom to special measures and the language and communication style of the professionals.
  4. A code of conduct is established for barristers questioning vulnerable witnesses. This should address the use of accessible language and the format of complicated questions.
  5. The eligibility for special measures is broadened to include adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
  6. Where an application for special measures to the court is required it should be made when the trial date is being set.

Finally a word of caution on any measure or legislation introduced, the impact of sexual violence is not something that fits into a neat box, its effects are complex. If we are really committed to improving the experience of survivors in the system it's time to incorporate what we know about trauma.