Maggie Mellon of the Women for Independence National Committee blogs about the launch of JusticeWatch at Edinburgh.
Like a good few other women I spent yesterday watching justice in Scotland’s courts.
The day started for me with a trip to BBC Scotland’s Edinburgh studio at 7.30 for a quick interview on the Good Morning show about the launch of Justice Watch that day.
What are our plans? To do what it says on the tin and just watch justice, for women, in our courts. Women for Indy was, I explained, going in to see why and how Scotland imprisons women at a higher rate than than any other country in the British islands. And many other countries in Europe. Four times the rate of the Republic of Ireland. And – shock – even higher than England, that bastion of unfairness and injustice. Despite the commitments of several governments over many years to cut the number of women unnecessarily in prison, the number keeps going up. Why and how? The government has yet again committed to reducing the number of women in prison, to ‘radical changes’, but will these actually happen?
Our suspicion is that far too much attention is being paid to prison and not to the services outside prison that actually work. There is no queue for prison. There are queues for Willow and Tomorrow’s Women and other services – that are scrambling for money and face closure every year. Yet as I got to explain to BBC Good Morning audience, they had been proven to be more effective, much better than prison.
Were women a special case? No, men matter too, and the waste of short sentences is wrong for men too. But when a man goes to jail, the home and children are not destroyed. When a woman goes to jail, a whole family can be devastated. Homes lost, children in care, the woman herself terrified about what is happening outside. Women who have lost their children and families because of prison can become fodder for the revolving door of repeat petty offending, alcohol and drug self medication.
So thanks to BBC Scotland for allowing the time to explain this properly. And off to Edinburgh Sheriff Court. I had the list of planned appearances from the Scottish Court website and had marked the names of women and the courts and sheriffs they were to appear in. Sara Sheridan was already there at 9,15 and we both went in to look at the lists of appearances, including the list of people being held in police custody having been arrested over the weekend. The staff were very friendly and helpful. And I saw this repeated throughout the day when bewildered relatives, and defendants, and witnesses asked for assistance and help. So something is working well in the malls of justice.
And these are pretty grand malls. The court is beautifully and expensively constructed, full of marble and stone and glass. The courtrooms are modern and comfortable. But my god – the contrast between the well heeled lawyers and sheriffs and even the more lowly paid clerks and security staff and the defendants was stark.
The poverty of the accused is what hits you first and foremost. These are people whose obvious ill health, and poor and cheap clothing, should be an accusation against society and its courts, and yet they are the accused. Teenagers milling about. Many without parents or family to guide and support them – leading me to suspect that these are children unfortunate enough to have been ‘looked after’ in care of their local authority. Not a named person to be seen here. Perhaps we should appoint sheriffs or legal aid solicitors? Certainly the only people with an interest in them are their legal aid solicitors, representing so many people that the attention they can afford is fleeting, if kindly.
So much to observe and we have not even sat in court yet! The group has assembled and we take our ‘I’m watching Justice’ selfies and pictures and distribute ourselves in two’s around the courts where women are listed to appear.
There were three women listed as having been in police custody over the weekend or part of it, and friendly court staff told us that hey would not be up till the afternoon. Before that there were all those listed to appear in one of the 8 court rooms devoted to sheriff summary proceedings.
We spent the morning sitting in the courts in which women were listed to appear. The most striking thing from this experience was that while the court rooms and surroundings are modern enough, in many respects the court processes seem not to have changed since the 19th century: the sheriffs in their wigs, the lawyers in their gowns. Dickens would have been quite at home satirising the pompous gravity of ‘justice’. One major difference is of course that there are now women sheriffs, prosecutors and defenders, but that is one equality of opportunity that I for one can’t really celebrate. Most of the accused seem to be guilty of severe poverty rather than any evil. Their clothes, their pallor, their crimes all speak of their poor circumstances, lack of choices, and of lives lived perpetually on the edge.
What struck us all when we met during a break was the enormous waste of time and money involved. At a time when the internet makes communication instant, the courts still run on paper systems. Files and files and files. The Procurator Fiscal, prosecuting, seems to have to present cases which they have often only set eyes on that morning. They have no idea if the case information has been disclosed to the defence, or whether warrants have been properly served on accused or on witnesses. Cases were adjourned when prosecution and defence witnesses didn’t show, or if the witnesses are present, the prosecution was not ready or the defence is not prepared, or legal aid had not been granted yet, or specialist reports had not been produced, or the accused was not there.
So, in the morning, I did not see any of the cases of women that had been listed to appear in court 6 where I was sitting. But from 2 o’clock I sat in court room 4 where Sheriff Katherine Mackie was hearing domestic abuse cases. And this is where most of the women appearing in court that day were appearing. Not as victims but as the accused. Yes, three women were brought in front of the sheriff having spent all or part of the weekend in police custody. All charged with domestic abuse.
The first woman brought out was no more than 5ft tall, seemed to be barely out of her teens. She had breached bail conditions not to approach or attempt to approach her boyfriend. He was very agreeable and had apparently invited her into his home. Who called the police to tell them she was there? Who knows? But the police went and apparently felt they had no option but to arrest her and hold her in the cells since Saturday. The court was told by her defence solicitor that she had two children aged 1 and 2 years old, both of whom were being looked after by their father. Sheriff Mackie explained to her as clearly as she could that breaching bail was serious, and that no matter what her boyfriend said or thought about it, she was the one who would be in trouble and not him if she accepted any more invitations. Trial was set for a few weeks hence.
The second woman had spent the whole weekend in custody. A grandmother in her late forties or early fifties with no previous convictions, she was accused of ‘domestic abuse’ because she had hit and shouted at her ex boyfriend in the pub. He had been drinking in her local, miles from his home area, in what may have been an attempt to wind her up.
A third woman was a young mother whose anxious husband and mother had been waiting in the court all day for her to be brought up from the cells. She also had no history of offending, and was obviously distraught and humiliated and wretched, and just sobbed throughout the short hearing. Her defence solicitor explained that there had been some sort of altercation at home, the husband and wife under stress, and that police had decided to arrest and charge her. Sheriff Mackie was again noticeably kind towards her and asked the PF whether this was a case that they might consider whether the public interest would be served by proceeding to trial. The PF said indeed that would be considered, implying that they might not proceed to prosecution.
It was a little reassuring to know that the public interest is sometimes felt to be served by not proceeding with a case rather than by prosecuting to the maximum of the law. But not reassuring enough. These cases are expensive. Not a single person except the women concerned and their children seem to have suffered from the incidents. The men were uninjured, the offences seemingly nothing more than drunken altercations, possibly fuelled by drink but equally perhaps just by stress and desperation.
I remember when the police used to attend ‘domestics’ where a woman had been terrified and just remove the man down the road, warning him not to go back that night. I remember being howled down in the mainly male trades council in Edinburgh for raising the scandal of domestic violence and calling on trade unions to take a stand against it (“that’s a private matter, not a union matter!”). It seems that the penalty that women are paying now for the failure to acknowledge male violence is that justice is not only gender blind, but manages to equate a threat and actual violence by a man against a woman, with a woman shouting I’ll bloody kill you, or words to that effect. An impotent threat of violence by a woman, no matter how risible, is now prosecuted as severely as a very real threat by a man against a woman. That is bonkers. And a waste of time, of money, and not in the public interest AT ALL.
Knowing as I do that women who are victims of domestic violence are now losing their children to care because of being held responsible for exposing their children to emotional abuse I believe that in many ways, justice is as unenlightened about domestic abuse as it has always been. It’s the woman who has to pay, one way or the other.
This is going to be a big issue in our Justice for Women campaign . . . just watch and see.
Justice Watch is a mass observation style initiative which will capture women’s experiences of justice in our courts in cities and towns, and bring these out to a wider audience of women. We are also watching national and local media for news about women in the courts. At the same time we intend to alert the public to the huge financial and social costs of using the criminal justice system including children who have to come into care, the loss of homes, and cost of rehousing, the impact on employment and opportunities for rehabilitation.We will be encouraging women across Scotland to take part over the course of the year, to make sure that we can cover every court in Scotland.