A woman who claimed her husband had been violent was jailed after she refused to testify against her husband.
The 40 year-old teacher was sentenced to two weeks in prison for contempt of court although she only spent four nights in custody following an appeal by her solicitor.
She was sentenced shortly after she appeared before Kilmarnock Sheriff Court to give in her husband’s domestic abuse trial. She originally claimed he had struck her in the head, causing her to fall over and suffer an injury.
Despite making these claims in her initial statement to the police, the mother of two later appeared to waiver. She sent several emails to the prosecutor asking for the charges to be dropped. In one email she said that while she did “appreciate and support the zero-tolerance approach to domestic assault” the incident had been a “collision”. However in another message she said it was “the first time he has assaulted me and it’s completely out of character for him”.
Once she had been sworn in to give evidence, the answers she gave were unclear and evasive. She claimed she and her husband had been drinking so she did not remember exactly what had happened. Sheriff Elizabeth McFarlane warned her that she risked contempt of court but the woman continued to answer in vague terms and was taken into custody. Her two-week sentence was issued the following day. There had been “no mention of a collision or even drinking” in the woman’s statement to police, the Sheriff said during sentencing. The mother was “trying to be clever” by evading questions and had “skirted around” the issue.
The husband had been found not guilty of assault which the Sheriff said was because the woman “failed to answer questions asked by the prosecution”.
Sheriff McFarlane’s decision to jail the woman has been condemned by legal experts, women’s groups and politicians.
Claire Baker is the justice spokeswoman for Scottish Labour. She said there were already worries that domestic violence was “under-reported as victims are all too often scared or unwilling to come forward” and that “this case will have done nothing to help and may instead act as a deterrent”.
Similar sentiments were also expressed by Marsha Scott, the chief executive of Scottish Women’s Aid. She explained that while it was “not unheard of in the past that a victim would be cited for contempt when she felt unable to testify” her organisation “abhorred that as an outcome”. This kind of approach “re-victimises victims and breaches their human rights”, she said.
It is a very difficult balancing exercise in cases like this one. You have to be able to accommodate the needs and support for the victims. However in many cases, victims – both male and female – are often too scared or intimidated to take matters further. When this happens, the perpetrator can walk away to do it again to the same person or someone else. In most cases, the self-esteem and confidence of the victim is so low that they will reconcile. The difficult question is what services and support should be place to encourage the victim to give evidence? In cases like this, sanctions such as imprisonment do not seem appropriate at all. It might even serve to do the exact opposite and prevent other victims from coming forward.
On the flip side of things, there arguably needs to be some safeguarding in place to prevent false allegations being made against people which can turn their life upside down. We see all too often false allegations being made and then no accountability or repercussions when they decide to take it no further. The person standing accused can be left tarnished by the allegations. This can have a significant impact on their life, work and relationships with family and friends. Although they avoid a trial, they don’t get the chance to prove their innocence in court.
Was her imprisonment harsh? Most would say so. However, could you argue it was for the greater good for her to see the allegations through to the end? What was the alternative? It is a difficult question to answer without knowing all of the details and background to this case. Whilst in some cases this sanction would seem ridiculous with no regard to the victim, there are other cases where it might have acted as a deterrent to prevent people making false allegations. It is a very fine balancing act indeed.