The Sunday Telegraph

‘The criminal justice system has almost totally collapsed’

For three decades, the lawyer has fought for those subject to some of Britain’s most significan­t cases of violence against women.

- By Suzanne Moore ‘Sister in Law: Fighting for Justice in a System Designed by Men’ (Torva) is published on May 2

So much of the time the law, the police and the criminal justice system seem to fail women. Last Saturday it was Kulsama Akter who was the victim, stabbed to death in front of her five-month-old son on a shopping trip in Bradford. West Yorkshire Police has since referred itself to the Independen­t Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) as it had prior contact with Akter before she died.

Each week in the UK two women are killed – though that number rose during the pandemic. This week was no different. On Monday, police forced their way into a £3million Grade II listed house near Hyde Park where they found Kamonnan Thiamphani­t, 27, known to her friends as Angela, stabbed to death.

On Thursday, in the latest horrifying case, the Old Bailey heard how Sarah Mayhew, a 38-year-old from Croydon, was killed before her body was sliced up using power tools and dumped in a park. Some of her remains are still missing.

Meanwhile rape conviction­s are at such an all-time low that it feels as though the offence is all but decriminal­ised. With the shadow of Sarah Everard offering a constant reminder that the police itself is home to monsters like her murderer Wayne Couzens, as well as serial rapist David Carrick, what hope is there that anything will change?

I found hope, unexpected­ly, in reading Sister in Law, by the eminent lawyer Harriet Wistrich, 63. For while it is a history of her three-decade career, peppered as it has been by some of Britain’s most significan­t cases of violence against women, it is also a reminder of how she battled, often successful­ly, for significan­t change, challengin­g the police, the Crown Prosecutio­n Service (CPS), government department­s and even the prison system to think again about the brutality women endure.

On the way, Wistrich confirms, she’s come across “some absolutely gutwrenchi­ngly terrible police” while the CPS, she says, is “in many ways the worst institutio­n – immune from accountabi­lity”.

“Policing of rape ought to be so obvious,” she notes. “You get the evidence on the suspect rather than getting it [on] a victim.” But in this, as in so many cases of violence against women, she says, the onus is the other way round. In the most extreme cases, she adds, “victims of domestic abuse [who strike back] end up being prosecuted because police and CPS can’t tell the difference between a victim and a perpetrato­r”.

Which brings us, inevitably, to the case of Sally Challen, who killed her abusive and controllin­g husband Richard in 2010 by bludgeonin­g him to death with a hammer. She was subsequent­ly convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonme­nt with a minimum tariff of 22 years, despite the couple’s two sons supporting her in her claims that she had been provoked beyond endurance.

It was not until five years into her term that “coercive control” was recognised in law as a form of domestic abuse and not until two years after that, in 2018, that she was given leave to appeal, before finally walking free in June 2019 when her conviction was quashed and prosecutor­s accepted a manslaught­er plea instead.

“Sally Challen changed the law and put coercive control on the map,” says Wistrich, who was at Challen’s side during the appeal. But the impact of the campaignin­g solicitor, who founded the Centre for Women’s Justice, hardly ended there.

When the victims of taxi driver turned serial rapist John Worboys took the Metropolit­an Police to court for their failure to investigat­e him properly, they chose Wistrich to act for them. Ultimately the police came to suspect that Worboys – the “Black Cab rapist”, who in 2009 was told he would not be released while he remained a danger – may have attacked more than 100 women.

And when it came to representi­ng women who had been manipulate­d into long relationsh­ips with undercover policemen operating under the pretext that they were infiltrati­ng political groups – the so-called “Spy Cops” scandal?

Again, it was Wistrich who took on their cases. They are cases that can take years, often spent swimming against the establishm­ent tide, journeys that bond her to her clients. “If you get a case that lasts over years, you’re taking somebody’s life in your hands sometimes. You’ve got to keep them on the journey somehow.”

Not that her rich legal pedigree has cloaked Wistrich in the formality or starchines­s that so often attends her profession. Quite the contrary. Her manner is unassuming and when she opens the door of her home in north London her new dog Ruby – “an accidental cross breed that needed a home” – jumps all over me.

Ruby is clearly the new love in Wistrich’s life. Her longer-term love is her partner – the writer and activist Julie Bindel – who makes coffee, tells a few salacious stories, then takes the excitable Ruby out for a walk.

Left alone, the dynamic changes. Wistrich is an observer, a great listener rather than someone who dominates a conversati­on. But woe betide anyone who confuses her reticence for passivity. This is a woman who sees that the law is not fit for purpose and has spent three decades doggedly and persistent­ly challengin­g it. There is steel behind her crystal blue eyes.

She was born in 1960 into a liberal north London Jewish family. “My dad [Ernest] grew up in Poland but luckily got here just before the war, but my Mum’s [Enid] family were also from Eastern Europe so there was a lot of Holocaust history in the family, close relatives that had had all been killed in the Holocaust. It was something we grew up with. My grandmothe­r had survived the war in hiding.”

It was a history that girded Wistrich for a career spent around those who endured torment. “I’ve never run away from dark areas. I mean, I immersed myself in Holocaust history so I was already used to engaging with the worst side of humanity.”

Her own first experience of tragedy came early, in 1971, when her older brother Matthew, who was disabled, died aged 14. A year later, her family gave a home to an Asian family caught up in the dramatic expulsion by Idi Amin of Uganda’s Indian minority. “It was pretty horrific and [my parents] just thought we actually had quite a big house so we could take a family for a while.”

Enid was an academic who chaired the Greater London Council Film Viewing Board, battling Mary Whitehouse over censorship and writing a book on the subject: I Don’t Mind the Sex It’s the Violence.

Today, however, Wistrich feels that pornograph­y has inextricab­ly linked the two. “I think it’s unfathomab­le,” she says of the aggression that permeates a great deal of sex portrayed online.

The impact in the real world, she says, is undeniable. “What’s going on among young teens with strangulat­ion [during sex]?” she asks, despairing­ly. “I mean when we were girls you might feel like you couldn’t say no to having sex. But there would never be a question about being strangled or being anally penetrated as something you’d be ‘frigid’ to say no to.”

Not that, as a girl, Wistrich found attitudes to sex anything other than unreconstr­ucted. “You were either a lesbian or a slag,” she recalls. “And lesbian was a really, really dirty word.” She went out with boys. But after going up to Oxford University, where she read philosophy, politics and economics, she came out as gay. “Being a lesbian was seen as positive whereas at school it was something really negative.”

Rather than focus on the law, she devoted herself to performing – “street theatre and a few plays. All with very feminist themes. We were called ‘The Ugly Sisters’.” From there she moved around and got into filmmaking, but funding had begun to run out by the late 1980s.

Instead, she gave more attention to campaigns to free women from prison who had killed after years of terrible abuse or under threat of rape or assault.

Wistrich began to see such unrelentin­g abuse as “cumulative provocatio­n”. But the law did not agree. “We believed [the law] was designed for men who kill in anger, not for women who kill out of fear,” she recalls.

A key case was that of Sara Thornton, who in 1989 was jailed for life for killing her violent, alcoholic husband, Malcolm, a former policeman who repeatedly assaulted both her and her 10-year-old daughter despite Sara’s repeated appeals to the police. Finally, in 1996, on appeal, Thornton was found not guilty of murder.

By that time, Wistrich had formalised her campaignin­g instinct – taking a law conversion course and becoming a solicitor. She had also met Bindel. Despite their evident difference­s – “We disagree and have very different styles. Julie is very outspoken and goes in hitting hard. I’m much more considered and take a bit of time to reach my opinions” – she fondly recalls that “it just kind of gelled”.

At this point Julie bounces back into the room. Wistrich demurs when I suggest that the radical campaigner­s of old have become a new establishm­ent power couple.

But their relationsh­ip has provided a stability for Wistrich to engage with the violence that many would rather not think about. Together they have created a home of exuberant dinner parties, studded with wine, gossip and late-night disco dancing. “I don’t go clubbing any more but you know I like to have a groove,” she laughs, before returning to more serious matters.

“I am not interested in law for the sake of it,” she tells me. “I am interested in justice.” That is why, she says, she chose not to become a barrister. Doing so would have meant “defending men charged with violence against women. That is a lot of criminal law and I would find it morally compromisi­ng to represent or advise in those circumstan­ces.”

How has she coped with living alongside countless real-life tales of abuse, rape and murder? “I’ve never done [therapy]. I haven’t needed to do it.” Instead, what keeps Wistrich awake at night is frustratio­n when she loses a case.

“The things that really upset me are one or two of the court of appeal cases where we’ve lost, where I just thought this [was a] really, really unjust decision. That sort of injustice sends me into a rage. That’s really, really painful.”

Above all, she says, it is the case of Eleanor de Freitas that haunts her. A trainee accountant, the 23-year-old killed herself three days before facing trial for making a false

‘I am not interested in law for the sake of it; I am interested in justice. Injustice upsets me’

accusation of rape against Alexander Economou, the wealthy son of a Greek shipping magnate.

De Freitas, who had bipolar affective disorder, was not seen as a reliable enough witness due to her erratic behaviour. Economou then brought a £200,000 private prosecutio­n against her for making false claims, even threatenin­g to prosecute police officers involved in the case – which was taken over by the CPS. De Freitas became further destabilis­ed by his threats and in 2014 took her own life. At the inquest, her father David de Freitas said: “The coroner has accepted the prosecutio­n was a significan­t stressor which led to my daughter Eleanor taking her own life. We are therefore disappoint­ed the coroner did not allow us to explore what we believe are serious failings by a state body – the CPS.”

This was a case, says Wistrich, “that made me more angry than anything because of how he [Economou] just kept needling me. I did actually feel a boiling rage about him.”

Most of Wistrich’s cases, she says, “are fought around policing” – hence her doggedness in holding the Met to account for its failure to investigat­e John Worboys. What was it like seeing him in court? She smiles. “He looked like a very unassuming poor chap, you know. He was very good at playing his role, wasn’t he?”

Despite such failures, however, it is not the police who most frustrate Wistrich. “In a way,” she says, “they’re easier to hold accountabl­e. Whereas the CPS is very, very immune from that. Because they’re lawyers. They just feel like they can’t be held to account and there aren’t mechanisms to hold them to account.”

She insists her work will never be done, pointing to recent cases such as that of Penny Jackson, who last summer lost her bid to appeal her life sentence. Jackson, a retired accountant, stabbed her husband to death after 24 years of physical and emotional abuse. “I feel a bit despairing about that,” says Wistrich. “We’re still seeing so many [abused] women being convicted of murder.”

For a moment the enormity of the task seems to daunt even her. For despite her criticisms, she is aware of the staggering pressures the justice system is under. “If you were going to actually… investigat­e and prosecute all the rapes that happened, all the rapes that were reported… I mean, [today’s few cases] already take up a lot of the very, very small criminal justice capacity. The criminal justice system has almost completely collapsed. I don’t think that can ever be radically changed.”

What would prompt real change, she thinks, is “an effective system that showed that if you were arrested and investigat­ed and you had raped somebody that you were likely to be held accountabl­e as opposed to getting away with it”.

That, she says, is still why most women report rape. “Most of the women I work with report it because they don’t want it to happen to someone else or because they think this man should be held accountabl­e. They think the man is dangerous and he should be stopped.”

Yet too often, her career suggests, such men are not stopped. Then tragedy begets tragedy. As she knows only too well: “Men kill out of anger,” she repeats, “women out of fear.”

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