New court aims to deal with abuse claims quicker

0
Have your say

THE tears begin to roll down her cheeks as she describes the punching. The fist to her forehead, to the side of her head, to her jaw, to her hands as she tried to protect her face.

The punches that rained down on her, then suddenly stopped, then started again . . . the punches that ended in a trip to hospital with the paramedics concerned her jaw was broken and possibly some fingers.

Aneta Romasko is quietly recalling how she spent New Year’s Day. While others may have been recovering from the celebrations of the night before, or out visiting friends and family, she was, allegedly, fending off an attack from her boyfriend of three years.

Hidden behind a large white screen in a corner of Court No 8 in Edinburgh’s Sheriff Court, in perfect English, but heavily accented with her native Polish, the 28-year-old describes the day she says she thought she “might die”. The court room hangs on her every word, and her former partner Adam Barwikowski, brought into court from custody, sits silently crying as he watches her give her version of events on a television screen.

This is the first day of a specialist domestic abuse court being trialled by the Crown Office and the Procurator Fiscal Service in a bid to improve the way such cases are dealt with by the criminal justice system. That is why Aneta is giving evidence just over a month after the incident – where normally it could have taken at least two months before the case was called.

The court, which will sit fortnightly, aims to speed up the process of such cases in the hope that fewer victims will recant their allegations, with both female and male victims of domestic violence given support from expert agencies.

Like most new ideas, it began in mass confusion. It was Tuesday morning and as the time ticked on, no-one was sure just where the court would sit. Eventually, Court 8 was agreed as it has remote witness technology.

Sheriff Kenneth McIver – one of three sheriffs who will be rotated to preside on the domestic abuse court – finally took his seat, and prosecutor fiscal depute Fiona Caldwell began, and so did a day of sad tales of relationship breakdown, alcohol and violence, the children affected, and the women who had decided they wanted to retract their evidence, that their “man” didn’t mean it, that he really loved them, that it was a mistake.

First up is a Graham Ronald Epworth. However, his accuser – a Miss Hunter – is nowhere to be seen, despite the support offered through the pilot scheme to complainants.

Prosecutor Miss Caldwell admits they had been unable to contact her, but stresses that such was the serious nature of the allegations that she wishes bail conditions to remain before Mr Epworth was brought to trial on February 21.

However, Mr Epworth’s defence counsel is soon telling the court how Miss Hunter had been in touch with him wishing the matter to be “discontinued” and was even complaining about the police treatment of her. She wished to make a “supplementary statement” in which she would say there had been “no assault”.

Sheriff McIver is having none of it. Bail conditions are to remain until trial. “One of the benefits of this scheme is that trials come up very quickly,” he tells Mr Epworth. “Under normal procedure we would fix this for late May, early June, but this trial is a couple of weeks away.”

More names are called, men of all ages appear, some in suits, their faces puffy with years of drinking, some in tracksuit bottoms and hooded bodywarmers and anoraks, swagger in their walks, aggression carved in their facial lines, tattoos on their necks.

There is James Morton, who’s missed a meeting with social services to produce a vital background report for the court. Nor does he want to be involved with the services of the Caledonian Men’s Programme as he doesn’t “consider there’s an ongoing situation of domestic violence that requires the attention of social work department and that this was an isolated incident”.

Again, the complainer, a Miss Horsburgh, seems to have changed her mind about whether she was assaulted or not. Mr Morton’s defence counsel says: “His address has been changed to that of the complainer. It’s a matter for her whether she lets him return to his home.”

Older, his white hair cut brutally short, Mr Morton soon discovers what Sheriff McIver wants. “You are a man who has a tendency to react violently to situations over the course of your life. You have a conviction for attempted murder, conviction for assault, breach of the peace, and now a conviction of the assault of your partner.

“You have to understand that if you assault someone then there is a price that has to be paid and in your case it’s going to be a period in custody.” He’s given a two-month sentence, reduced from four because of time already spent in jail.

Others come and go, trial dates are set for fortnights to come. Names are called to no reply. A warrant is issued for an arrest.

Then, after lunch, comes Aneta. Her former partner Adam is charged with assaulting her and a breach of the peace at their former home in Leith. He pleads not guilty, but guilty to two further charges of reckless damage and resisting and obstructing police officers. A prosecution witness has gone AWOL.

And so Aneta begins her evidence. Her long hair perfectly straightened, the jewellery store assistant manager tells how the couple had met three years ago and had moved in together to Murano Place.

Things had started badly in the morning on January 1. She alleges that she was awoken by Barwikowski who had wanted to have sex but she refused. She went back to sleep, only to be awoken again some time later. This time, she says, he had been drinking.

“He was quite aggressive. He seemed different. We’d had problems before so I knew I had to keep him calm.”

According to Aneta, it didn’t work. He began to push her around the room and she ended up cowering as he poked her in the ribs and yelled “all the abusive language” at her. He then threatened to pour vodka over her and set her alight or use her hair straighteners to burn her face. “I started screaming, hoping someone would come, but no-one did. I felt like my life might end.”

Then there was a threat to strip her and throw her outside naked. “By this time I was fighting him so he couldn’t do that. I pulled his ear. Then he said ‘ok, move out now’. I said I’d call a friend to come and get me . . . I called the police.”

At this point, he ran off. By the time the police came he was gone. Aneta couldn’t leave the house, though, as Adam had her keys. She called him, and he agreed to come back. “I was sitting on the couch. I never heard a thing. Then all I remember was his fist on my forehead . . . he was punching me over and over . . . then he left the room so I called the police again . . . he came back and hit me again, 20 times . . . loads . . . the room was spinning . . . things were being smashed.”

During her evidence Barwikowski begins to cry, and occasionally shake his head.

By the time the police arrived they found him at the top of the flat stairwell, “sweating, clenching his fists, with blood on his knuckles”, according to Pc Rory Maguire in his evidence. He resisted arrest, but was soon handcuffed. Aneta was taken to hospital with suspected broken jaw, although ultimately she just suffered bruising.

However, Barwikowski’s defence counsel, suggests that her injuries may have been caused differently. Asking her if she’d threatened to take her own life by swallowing paracetemol, Aneta admits it is true. “I thought my life was about to be over, so I said ‘I would rather kill myself than you do it’,” she says. “I am grateful to him that he held my throat and made me spit them out, but that did not cause what happened to me.”

Her evidence over, she leaves the court and the screen is lifted. Barwickowski is in tears. But the ordeal isn’t over. Sheriff McIver wants the missing witness called, so the trial will be held over until Monday – and he will remain in custody.

It’s been a long stuttering day to the first domestic abuse court, but as Fiona Caldwell says: “At least it’s under way. We are always going to have women who don’t want the support this pilot is offering which is a shame, but we hope there will be many others who do use it.”

FIGHTING BACK AT FEAR IMPOSED BY LOVED ONES

IN Scotland, a domestic violence incident is recorded every ten minutes and figures suggest that between one in three and one in five women experience some form of domestic abuse in the course of their lifetime.

There were 51,926 incidents of domestic abuse in Scotland recorded by the police in 2009-10, with 9566 recorded by Lothian and Borders Police.

About five per cent of Lothian and Borders’ annual domestic abuse incidents are reported between Christmas Eve and January 4, with reports peaking on New Year’s Day.

Women are far more likely to be victims than men, with incidents involving a female victim and a male perpetrator representing 82 per cent of reported incidents.

A Scottish study involving 1395 young people aged 14-18 found that a third of young men and a sixth of young women thought that using violence in an intimate relationship was acceptable under certain circumstances. The same study found that 17 per cent of young women had already experienced violence or abuse in their own relationship with a boyfriend.

The White Ribbon Campaign encourages men to sign up to stop male violence against women. More information can be found at {http:// www.whiteribbonscotland.org.uk|www.whiteribbonscotland.org.uk|www.whiteribbonscotland.org.uk}