I recently took part in a BBC Disclosure documentary detailing my experiences as a survivor of domestic abuse and stalking. The documentary featured the stories of seven women, all from different parts of Scotland, as we navigate life after leaving abuse.

Though each case was radically different, many of the same frustrations were felt, and similar systemic limitations were exposed. I decided to participate as I felt having a range of perspectives represented could help shed an honest light on the ways in which the Scottish criminal justice system can be both helpful, and potentially harmful, to those who report abuse.

It would be remiss of me to make generalisations about an underfunded, overwhelmed system which isn't fit for purpose, so I will instead highlight some key areas identified by a number of survivors which have been put into an open letter for MPs.

Many of us felt as though bail conditions may as well not be there, and that's if you're one of the complainants lucky enough to have them granted. All but one of the survivors who took part in the BBC disclosure documentary had the bail conditions designed to keep them safe repeatedly breached, with no consequences, even in cases where there was CCTV footage and other concrete evidence which might have proven a breach.


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Knowing reports wouldn't be taken seriously or result in any kind of consequences left many of the women, including myself, reluctant to report further offences. We can see the devastating consequence of this kind of systemic lapse in the case of Claire Inglis, who was murdered in Stirling while the perpetrator was out on bail, a preventable and heinous crime which demonstrates the importance of strictly monitoring people who have been released on bail and treating any reported breaches with the utmost severity.

When it comes to societal attitudes around domestic abuse, the media has an important role to play. Strict and unwavering adherence to style guides, guidelines written by charities and experts working within the criminal justice system, can help reporting to be as helpful and accurate as possible.

While important not to downplay the impact of domestic abuse, it is essential the media do not sensationalise the crime or its effects, and care should be taken to ensure any accompanying imagery does not reinforce stereotypes or promote harmful and misinformed attitudes. By following the guidelines, raising awareness of the pervasive, varied nature of the crime, and signposting resources, coverage of domestic abuse can play a vital role in informing the general public, and empowering survivors.

Recently the documentary My Wife My Abuser aired on Channel 5, again featuring home camera footage of domestic abuse. This programme was particularly groundbreaking as it is helping to combat the ingrained cultural misconception that men cannot be abused, particularly physically.

Abuse comes in many forms, and anyone can experience it at any time. Men have reported similarly poor experiences navigating the criminal justice system as a survivor of abuse. In a study conducted by the Scottish Government, 93% of respondents said, in their experience, the system got “nothing” right. They also noted that abuse continued after they reported it to the police, with nearly two thirds of the men saying if they had known how poor their experience with the criminal justice system would be, they would never have approached police to report the abuse perpetrated against them.

The Herald: Richard Spencer on Channel 5 documentary, My Wife My Abuser: The Secret FootageRichard Spencer on Channel 5 documentary, My Wife My Abuser: The Secret Footage (Image: free)

Another concern raised in the Disclosure documentary was the use of plea bargains and late guilty pleas in order to have charges removed and sentences reduced. One case featured a perpetrator facing a total of 11 charges, 7 of which were dropped following a plea bargain. Despite the assertion by the Procurator Fiscal that a major contributing factor to the acceptance of pleas is to reduce the stress upon the witness by removing the need to give evidence, at no point were any of the survivors consulted, denying them any agency in their own case.

After waiting over a year for a court date, Lauren Hardie had to call the Procurator Fiscal multiple times over several days before finally being told that the perpetrator had taken a plea bargain to drop two serious charges against him, and had walked away from court with an admonition.

In plain terms, to be admonished in Scots law is to be given a verbal warning not to commit any further crimes, with no other punishment given. Further explanation on an admonition is given by the national records of Scotland as, “If a person is found guilty, and the offence is considered trifling, or there are special circumstances associated with the accused or the offence, the court may dismiss the person with an admonition.”

It appears the Scottish courts may have a vastly different definition of “trifling” compared to a great many survivors, as in nearly 12,500 cases of proven domestic abuse, an admonition was given at sentencing. Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal domestic abuse lead Dr Emma Forbes was quoted as saying, "A key priority for prosecutors is to improve our communication with victims, recognising the impact of trauma.” I would welcome any improvements on this front, as the current system often leaves survivors in a state of emotional, physical and financial limbo which is not conducive to healing from trauma.

Justice takes many forms, but it is integral to the healing process of survivors that they are taken seriously, treated with the utmost respect and that all stakeholders are constantly seeking to improve the experiences of those navigating the criminal justice system.

The Herald: Many survivors face long waits for justiceMany survivors face long waits for justice (Image: Glasgow High Court)

It is clear that the pandemic has had an impact not only on increased reports of domestic abuse, but also with regards to backlogs within the system, as there are reportedly nearly 30,000 cases waiting to be seen, with almost a third of those cases involving domestic abuse.

Participants of the documentary saw cancellations, postponements and delays of up to five years, time spent in devastating, preventable anxiety. After 27 years of abuse, survivor Carolyn Quinn, from Paisley, reported to police, and was met with an uncommunicative and disjointed system which prolonged an already traumatic experience.

She said: "When I first spoke to Victim Support and the Procurator Fiscal, they did say that there was a backlog of cases. But I didn't expect it to be this lengthy. In a way that's a sentence in itself, that I've served.”

It is imperative that our justice system does not prolong or exacerbate the trauma of survivors. The way we deal with domestic abuse, in the media, in our everyday life, in our communities, and in our legislation can have a profound effect on survivors and their ability to escape, report and survive abuse.

https://www.womensaid.org.uk/ https://www.rapecrisisscotland.org.uk/ https://galop.org.uk/ https://abusedmeninscotland.org/