Assault survivor outlines the realities victims face when going to trial
Solicitor and sexual assault survivor Sarah Grace has opened up about her time going through the court system to help other victims bring their attackers to justice.© Provided by Extra.ie
Despite working in the law herself, Sarah said she was ‘shocked to [her] core’ at how assault victims were treated in court.
Sarah has highlighted some of the issues that people should take heed of before taking their attackers to court ‘in order to be better prepared.’
© Provided by Extra.ie
Despite working as a solicitor herself, Sarah said she was ‘shocked to [her] core’ at how assault victims were treated in court. Pic: Getty Images
Sarah was attacked by a stranger who broke into her apartment in the middle of the night, and after her attacker was jailed this week, she decided to speak up about her experience.
Speaking to Claire Byrne on RTE Radio One, Sarah first noted that she had been told it would be 18 months before she was given a trial.
’18 months, I was told, was almost unheard of in terms of speed which really shocked me’, she recalled.
‘Something like this — sexual violence or any sexual offence — it affects you in a way that other crimes might not affect you. It really goes to the core psyche of someone.’© Provided by Extra.ie In an effort to help other survivors, Sarah has highlighted some of the issues that people should take heed of before taking their attackers to court ‘in order to be better prepared.’ Pic: Shutterstock
Two weeks before the trial was due to start, Sarah was then told that the trial had been delayed by a year, even though she had been promised priority as her attacker was on bail.
‘The judge ultimately made the decision, but you’re told by someone who told someone who told someone and there’s no way for you to defend yourself, you have no legal representation in these trials.’
On top of this, Sarah shared that she had to fight tooth and nail for a screen to be put between herself and her attacker during the trial.
The solicitor shared that sexual assault victims are entitled to a screen under the Criminal Justice Act but only if the judge finds it is ‘in the interest of justice.’
‘The judge only makes the decision once the trial starts. So you have that looming over you that you might have to give evidence next to the offender and I cannot emphasise how close you are seated to the offender while you are giving evidence… you are in touching distance of each other.’© Provided by Extra.ie ‘I cannot emphasise how close you are seated to the offender while you are giving evidence… you are in touching distance of each other.’ Pic: Getty Images
Explaining that there was ‘no way’ she could have given evidence if she could have seen her attacker’s face, Sarah shared that the reason courts push against the use of a screen is that it makes the defence ‘look guilty.’
Sarah also noted that her counselling notes were used as evidence in the trial, but not for her benefit.
She said she was shocked to discover that ‘when you go to therapy after a rape or after a sexual assault incident, those notes can be taken and will form part of the evidence in trial.’
‘Two things shock me on that. One was: we’re only doing this to discredit the victim, so all of my notes kind of lined up with what I was saying so they weren’t used to kind of back up my evidence. But if there was any discrepancy or anything that I had mentioned in there where I said “maybe he didn’t quite do that, but I think he did”, anything like that would be used to discredit me.
‘No other crime permits therapy notes to be used against a witness.’© Provided by Extra.ie Sarah also noted that her counselling notes were used as evidence in the trial, but not for her benefit. Pic: Getty Images
Horrified, Claire Byrne asked Sarah how anyone could be open in a counselling session if you knew the notes could be used against you in court.
However, Sarah added that she wasn’t even warned that this would happen.
‘I’m opening up about my deepest darkest thoughts following this in order to heal. And I’m doing that in the confidence of the counselling room, and out of nowhere I’m told I need to sign over these counselling records, and if I don’t, the judge can force the release anyway and all you’re doing is delaying the trial.’
Sarah’s final note was that the victim must give a victim impact statement at the end of the trial, despite being treated as a witness for the purpose of the trial.© Provided by Extra.ie Sarah shared that she wasn’t even warned her counselling notes would be used against her. Pic: Getty Images
‘There were some things I didn’t want the public to know, that was my own private matter.’
Sarah said this was the issue that prompted her to go public with her assault.
‘A lot of people had recognised me through the articles even though I wasn’t named in them, which prompted me to go public because I almost had nothing else to lose.’
Currently, Sarah Grace is in the process of writing to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) and Minister for Justice Helen McEntee to discuss the treatment of victims in sexual assault trials. Until then, she is spreading her story in the hopes that it will make another victims trial that bit easier.