Giving evidence in a sexual abuse trial: hilarious
Philippa Willitts // 21 March 2014
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]