16 Days of Action – Paula’s story

28 November, 2023

Paula* was the victim of domestic abuse a number of years ago. After reporting it to the police, she details her experience of how the criminal justice system dealt with her case of historic domestic abuse, and the changes that need to happen.

As the victim of two specific cases of historic domestic abuse, I became a court witness in the case against the perpetrator. Some of the abuse had involved forms of ‘gaslighting’, so that I had, over many years, become convinced that my perceptions of the situation must be wrong. I thought I was the cause of the bursts of anger displayed by my then husband, as he punched holes in doors, stormed off in temper, and on one occasion even drove at speed on the wrong side of a motorway with me and our two young children in the car.

Worst of all was the occasion when he attempted to strangle me, stopping only when my nine-year-old son entered the room. He then said to my son, through gritted teeth ‘I was going to kill your mother and then kill myself’.

Even then, I somehow managed  to convince myself that it hadn’t actually happened, I buried the memory very deep, and continued trying to keep life as normal as possible for my two children.

When my son addressed the issue as an adult, and a father himself, we discussed the assault, and hindsight brought it into sharp focus, enabling us both to realise it was a matter for the police. The police did a terrific job, compiling the case with great tenacity, and I took much comfort on hearing the case was going to court.

I felt very vulnerable coming to court, but  I was reassured and supported by Victim Support Scotland who kept me updated as the case approached. They consistently reassured me that none of the abuse had been my fault. They supported me in a pre-trial familiarisation visit to court, which helped greatly.

Unfortunately, my experience of the Scottish Justice System was a huge disappointment. At the very least, I expected my case to be dealt with from start to finish in a respectful and professional manner. Sadly, this was NOT the case.

On the day the case began, there was no formal welcome, or introduction, and the case began after hours of anxious waiting. It was the end of the day when the gruff court officer suddenly called out my son’s name, as the first witness.

I was called soon after, and found that none of the previously agreed special measures (a screen separating me from the defendant) were in place, meaning I had to face the perpetrator of the abuse.

My questioning then began, but had to begin again when it was realised that I still had to be sworn in! A pantomime then ensued while the special measures were belatedly added. This left a very short time for me to be questioned, meaning the trial was then just part-heard.

We returned about two weeks later, when I was called first. I was again  asked a few cursory questions, before being grilled by the defendant’s lawyer. When the case collapsed due to ‘lack of evidence’, this was not communicated to us in any formal way, and I was left feeling very foolish, frustrated, angry, upset, and completely overlooked.

I followed the correct procedure to express my complaints but it seemed like a futile bureaucratic exercise. The fact that complaints can only be addressed within a 6 month time scale shows a basic misunderstanding of the lasting effect of trauma on victims of domestic abuse. It was only when I took my feelings of disillusionment and upset to Victim Support Scotland that I felt my issues were being addressed effectively.

I hope all court officials will learn that historic cases of domestic abuse need more attention to detail, not less. I feel very let down by their lack of preparation and  professionalism, and I hope that steps will be taken to ensure that others don’t have the same negative experience of the Scottish legal system as I had.

By any standards, the service was absolutely abysmal. Whatever is done now is too late to ‘make things better’ for me, but I hope my story will help to ensure that court procedure will change so that victims of domestic abuse feel reassured and respected by a system that supports them at every stage of the process.

*Name has been changed