Giving evidence in a sexual abuse trial: hilarious

by Philippa Willitts // 21 March 2014, 16:55

Tags: court case, giving evidence, legal system, max clifford, sexual abuse, trial, violence against women and girls

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I can't imagine how terrifying it would be to give evidence in a sexual abuse trial, as a victim. To talk about what might have been the scariest, most humiliating, or unpleasant time of your life in front of strangers, people who are taking notes, and a judge and jury who are ready to call you a liar if they don't find you a credible victim.

Taking yourself back to a time that you might have worked really hard to forget. Forcing yourself into those memories, talking about things you may have never articulated before, and almost certainly not in such a public forum. And if the person on trial is a celebrity there will be particular interest in your case. People are desperate for lurid details, overlooking the human beings behind the 'story'.

I can't imagine.

Then, imagine if the jury started laughing. And they laughed so much that the judge sent them out, during your evidence.

Imagine if they found your account of alleged abuse so hilarious that they could not stop laughing.

That's exactly what happened in the Max Clifford trial this week. The judge, Anthony Leonard QC, on re-admitting the jury to the court room, told them,

"It is inevitable in a case dealing with this sort of graphic detail that members of the jury want to burst out laughing.

"I can remember a very boring court case and we - I wasn't a judge then - became helpless with laughter and the judge had tears in his eyes and it took over 25 minutes to recover.

"But we have got to remember that this is a court of law and we are dealing with serious allegations, and, in fairness to the witness, and the rest of the court, you have got to learn not to react to what's happening. Can I ask you to settle down and remember where you are?"

To the jury, to Mr Leonard QC, I would say no. No, it is not inevitable that, dealing with any kind of graphic detail of alleged abuse, the jury will want to laugh. Especially during sensitive evidence of painful memories. It is not only not inevitable, it is not appropriate or acceptable.

Can a jury who found personal evidence laughable be an appropriate group of people to make a legal judgement of guilt or innocence? Can that woman who, against all odds, got a case to court, deal with being laughed at while telling her story? And can we, as a society, accept this standard in court cases relating to violence against women?

As Gemma Hallam so succinctly put it in a tweet to me, is it any wonder people don't report this shit?

[The image is of a gavel on a desk in what appears to be a courtroom. It was taken by Joe Gratz and is used under a Creative Commons Licence]

Comments From You

Elisa // Posted 21 March 2014 at 17:05

The jury should have been warned of the retraumatising effect the legal 'justice' system has on survivors. Massive fault on the judge. This is how tragedies like Frances Andrade's suicide happen.

Saranga // Posted 21 March 2014 at 17:06

I'm now ashamed to say that I laughed at this story when I read it. Thank you for writing this article and pointing out how wrong that reaction is.

Alicia Audrey // Posted 22 March 2014 at 01:17

This is horrible! Will the case really carry on with the same jury? They are clearly not the right bunch for the case and lack sensitivity and understanding of domestic violence and its effects.

I find this particularly disturbing at this time as a local MP made a "joke" of physically abusing a former girlfriend in the House of Assembly and the other MPs either laughed or remained silent. There was absolutely no rebuke until the public found out about it two weeks later, and I've formed a small group to get the gov't to stop ignoring what happened and ACT.

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