Victims have described how police officers, the Crown Prosecution Service and barristers have recommended that they don’t go back into court after giving evidence and don’t attend their perpetrator’s sentencing.
This means that they don’t often hear the defence of their attackers and are then left with unanswered questions about their court cases which can only be resolved by paying the high cost of court transcripts.
David Challen, son of Sally Challen, who was released from prison in a landmark case after killing her husband after decades of psychological abuse, said he had struggled to move on from the trauma of the case because he had been blocked from finding out what had happened in court without paying a hefty bill.
Claire Waxman, London’s Victims’ Commissioner, told The Independent that victims are being wrongly warned that going back into the court will make them appear “bitter” or “vindictive” and harm their chances of securing justice against their perpetrator.
“Especially if you are vulnerable and have used special measures for evidence, it is thought the judge won’t look kindly on you,” she added.
Ms Waxman explained most victims she had encountered complied with the incorrect advice they were given and did not go back into the court.
Victims are not given the option of watching the trial through a video link and are charged up to tens of thousands of pounds for a transcript of the court case, she added.
Ms Waxman referred to the case of a rape victim who was told it would cost her around £35,000 to get a transcription of her court case – adding that the victim was only present while giving evidence and there was an acquittal so she wanted answers.
She is calling for amendments to be made to the Victims and Prisoners Bill – due back in the House of Lords on 24 January – to ensure victims are able to access transcripts of crown court hearings for free, with a particular call for free transcripts of the judge’s sentencing remarks and for all sentencing remarks to be made public.
“It’s a loss of a part of your life and your traumatic experiences. It means I cannot have closure. I cannot recollect what I said. I cannot recollect what other people said. I have to go off my memory
The commissioner is also particularly concerned that victims should be able to access the judge’s summing up remarks for free if there is an acquittal as they can help understand how a verdict was reached. Justice agencies must be trained about the victim’s right to attend their trial and for this right to be explicitly stated in the victim’s code, she added.
Speaking to The Independent in an exclusive interview, Mr Challen said he has been blocked from accessing court transcripts from his mother’s trial unless he forks out £1,400.
“It is a denial of service to a victim of crime, essentially because there’s not enough in the kitty,” Mr Challen, a domestic abuse campaigner, said. “This criminal justice system can’t even offer us that basic empathy to allow us to go through the events that we have lived through.”
In 2019, Sally Challen’s murder conviction was altered to manslaughter and she was allowed to walk free from prison after serving eight years.
The case marked the first time the defence of coercive and controlling behaviour was used in a murder trial. Coercive control became a criminal offence only in 2015 and was not widely understood as a type of domestic violence at the time of her trial.
Mr Challen explained he has been unable to access two of the four transcripts he requested from the courts – adding he can’t get the transcript for his mother’s original murder trial from 2011 as he discovered the file had been deleted.
The 36-year-old said he has also been denied access to his mother’s 2019 appeal hearing unless he pays £1,400, with his request to go into the courts to listen to an audio file of the hearing rejected this week.
“It’s a loss of a part of your life and your traumatic experiences,” he added. “It means I cannot have closure. I cannot recollect what I said. I cannot recollect what other people said. I have to go off my memory. And it robs you, essentially, as a victim of crime, of your emotional capacity to come to terms with what you’ve experienced.”
Mr Challen said he suffers from PTSD and told the courts that health professionals had advised him to get the transcripts to help him find closure.
“The court system has been traumatising for me from start to finish as it would be for most victims of crime in the current state it is. But to be delivered this really just compounds the issues further. It traumatises me once again. It just treats me as a number, a name on the system and a cost attributed to it, and I’m just not worth that cost.”
Ms Waxman, who has been a victim of stalking for almost 20 years, said she had never been back into court after giving evidence and has never attended her perpetrator’s sentencing hearing due to being advised not to do so by police officers.
When you are in a court battle with a perpetrator, the trauma hasn’t necessarily been processed. You are still in it. It is afterwards when that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) develops. Victims are left more in the dark than anyone else.
She said she had always wanted to go back into the court but was fearful of jeopardising her chances of justice – explaining this means she often has a poor understanding of her stalker’s sentencing.
“Many victims struggle to recall what was said in court, given the trauma they are experiencing, the lack of good support, and the complex language and legal terms,” Ms Waxman added.
She explained victims often feel like they can’t move on from their trauma without properly understanding what happened in court and also warned that the high cost of transcripts is exacerbating victims’ anguish.
“When you are in a court battle with a perpetrator, the trauma hasn’t necessarily been processed,“ she added. “You are still in it. It is afterwards when that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) develops. Victims are left more in the dark than anyone else.”
Ellen Miller, the interim chief executive of leading domestic abuse charity Refuge, said: “For those survivors whose cases actually make it to court, the proceedings can be deeply traumatic.”
She explained this means many victims are dissuaded from going to court at all. Meanwhile, those who do attend may find it very hard to follow what is actually going on.
“Access to the transcripts of their court proceedings should be available for survivors who have shown immense courage in pursuing justice against their perpetrator,” Ms Miller added. “Charging survivors exorbitant fees to access these transcripts, makes them inaccessible and is a denial of justice that can cause further delay to survivors’ healing process. We urge the justice secretary to recognise survivors’ rights to justice by enabling all survivors to access their transcripts free of charge.”
A spokesperson for the Crown Prosecution said: “Victims have a right to choose whether to attend the rest of a trial after they have given evidence and there is no CPS policy to advise them otherwise.”