Finding Strength and Taking Back Control in the Pursuit of Justice & Freedom
The courtroom experience, for domestic abuse victims, is awful. It can be a place for further abuse and invalidation – where victims can feel blamed and unheard, an extension of the abuse they experienced in the relationship.
The reality is that all sexes can be victims - and their experience of court can and likely will be effected by their sex (sorry to say, but it seems the case). This said, for all victims the courts are not great at understanding the complexity and protecting the victims from further abuse (we wrote about this here, and what's being done about. it).
To address this, this article provides tips for surviving court alongside some perhaps lesser known strategic ways you can support the court to recognise the truth of the situation. Ideas that are powerful, regardless of your sex - as they relate to what you can control, rather than what you cannot.
Strategies that can help you to face the courtroom:
Mental and emotional preparation: Court hearings can be emotionally draining as you may have to relive traumatic experiences. To cope with additional stressors, like disorganisation or missing documents, practice mindfulness and deep breathing Focus on how you react to these situations, as that is within your control, but does take support and work to develop so don’t be too hard on yourself when you can’t! (for a FREE 6-week compassionate mind course designed to help with this – made for survivors of domestic abuse, click here).
Seek advice and support: Reach out to organisations like FLOWS, the National Centre for Domestic Violence, CourtNav, the National Domestic Abuse Helpline, Women's Aid, Mankind, and Rights of Women. These groups can provide guidance, resources, and emotional support throughout your court journey.
Allow time for recovery: After each hearing, give yourself space to process what has happened. Maintain a list of things you love to do and engage in those activities to help you heal and regain your emotional balance. Don’t go straight from court into work, childcare etc if you can help it. Expect it to be emotional and to need time to package it away.
Establish a support network: Make a list of people you can rely on for support during challenging times. Set boundaries with anyone who enables the perpetrator or has a negative impact on your well-being.
Connect with a single point of contact: Victims' Commissioner Claire Waxman emphasises the importance of having a single point of contact throughout your justice journey. Local organisations like Lighthouse Victim and Witness Care can connect you with an independent domestic violence advisor, an independent sexual violence advisor, or an independent violence advocate.
Gather evidence from professionals: To counteract the siloed approach of different departments in social services, gather written evidence from as many professionals as possible, including GPs, teachers, and social workers. Log all incidents of abuse with the police and keep all documentation and communication well-organised for use in court.
Start your recovery: Working on recovery is not to be put on hold. Court cases can last months to years. For some, therapy is not an option (for legal reasons) - but when it is, consider it. The Get Out Get Love programme is another consideration, 6 months plus - self-paced, digital and for all sexes - designed by a Clinical Psychologist who also escaped and recovered from domestic abuse. Whatever route you take, make it a priority to put yourself on your list of needs.
How you can psychologically (and legally) influence the courtroom outcome:
Courts can Misinterpret the effects of abuse: People who have been psychologically abused often experience feelings of guilt, shame, and self-blame. They may feel like failures for not stopping the abuse, which can lead to low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety. Unfortunately, these feelings may be misinterpreted by court professionals as signs of passivity, incompetence, and poor mental health, rather than as consequences of the abuse they have endured. Whilst we can hope that courts understand this, they often don’t – the nature of how we respond to abuse is complex and some of what we do (contact our ex, express emotions at the wrong times) can be seen as acting against court advice. The first step is to educate yourself and to start a journey to regulate your emotions, at least at times when you need to be on point for legal meetings, court appearances etc. A therapist can help with this, and so can our digital Get Out Get Love programme – which was developed to support this period of need for people (getting understanding, managing emotions and moving on). If you are experiencing significant trauma (flashbacks, panic, nightmares and/or zoning out periods) seek therapy if you can – stabilising this can be very helpful to support court proceedings.
Courtrooms can overlook your acts of resistance: Many people actively resist abuse in various ways in their relationships, such as seeking help from others, asserting themselves when necessary, and maintaining autonomy and independence. However, these acts of resistance are often overlooked, and victims are wrongly portrayed as passive victims who "let abuse happen." A damaging narrative, when used against us in court. It can hurt when this is suggested by solicitors or a judge. The question is asked, “how could you let this happen (to you and/or your child(ren))?”… or, “are you capable to parent if you let this happen for so long?”. The answer is simple, you were abused and abused people lose sight of reality. This is not a thing to say in court, but it is a thing to cling to in your own recovery. Take pride in the acts of resistance and this major act of resistance now – in being in court and fighting for what you need. That said, courts do need to see that you are empowered now and won’t let this reoccur as it is their job to prioritise children first. They also need to know that staying in situation is not the same as accepting it, which can be used as a narrative in a divorce to reduce the argument of how bad it was. How long a person stayed is not a measure of how bad it was, people stay in very awful abuse…sometimes for their whole lives. So, to temper this argument – demonstrate how you resisted, as you did but you likely need to realise it and then show it to the court…
Use the language of resistance: In written court documents, it is crucial for victims and their supporters to include information about how they have resisted and continue to resist each form of abuse. This language of resistance can help challenge stereotypes that paint people as passive victims, thereby presenting them as active and competent in protecting their children. Think of how much you worked to keep the peace, to meet the needs of your ex, to avoid, obey… walk on egg shells. This is all an attempt to stop abuse. Explain the impact on your life, the reduced freedom, the anxiety, fear and shame but go beyond this to demonstrate what you actually did in response to abusive behaviours. Think about other ways you resisted such as trying to leave, locking your phone, deleting web history, arguing back, locking a door, begging for it to stop, saying no, talking to friends, contacting a helpline, trying to save money etc etc. Many things you may have done to survive are important for the courts to hear during the process of escape. This shows competence in terms of you knowing it was wrong and trying to resist, regardless of whether it worked.
Avoid feeling guilty to direct guilt at the right party: We do not employ the same resistance strategies in every situation. They adapt their responses based on what is most suitable for their safety and well-being, as well as for reducing or stopping the abuse and control. I say this because it is important to not compare yourself with others. Look back at your own life and realise it is unique. Your resistance approach needs to be stated, but it is not a thing to compare to others. Whatever you did, was your attempt to survive and you need to avoid regret or guilt, in reflecting on how you tried to save yourself and perhaps others. Remember, in court, you are not the guilty party.
Recognise small victories to support the courtroom in doing the same: Even if victim was not been able to stop the abusive and controlling behaviours entirely, their efforts to resist should be acknowledged as successes. These acts of resistance demonstrate your ability to maintain some control over your life and can be seen as evidence of their competence in maintaining custody of your children or in supporting your claim to being a victim of abuse.
The experience of court room battles after abuse is at the peak of human awfulness, it truly is. But, we can support ourselves through a range of approaches that are compassionate, informed and strategic. Everything listed above is empowering and places power back in your hands. Use what feels right to be in control as much as you can. Get support and access it often and return here to review these ideas and check in with yourself about which you need to work on.
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