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Sexual abuse victim’s suicide sparks call for review of court procedures

Vera Baird QC raises concern after Frances Andrade’s son accuses police and CPS of letting his mother down

One of Britain’s most senior lawyers has called for a review of how courts handle sexual abuse cases following the suicide of a professional violinist after giving evidence at the trial of her former music teacher.

The former solicitor general Vera Baird QC raised concern over claims by the family of Frances Andrade, who killed herself days after testifying against Michael Brewer, that the cross-examination by the defence had been hostile and aggravated her trauma.

Baird, now the police commissioner for Northumbria, said the family’s assertion that the police had advised Andrade not to receive any therapy until after the trial was appalling.

“That is the police, in a very out-of-date way, treating the court as a sort of theatre,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“The theory used to be unless literally the pain of being sexually abused comes out, because she hasn’t had help to come back to normal, the jury will be unimpressed.

“If that is the way they thought then it is firstly … abysmal psychiatry and secondly it is an appalling misjudgment. The wellbeing of the victim must be far, far higher than this ludicrous tactical consideration.”

Jurors in the case against Brewer, who was found guilty of five counts of indecent assault on Friday, were not told of Andrade’s death until after they had reached a verdict.

Her son Oliver criticised the police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), claiming she had been left to “cope on her own” with the traumatic impact of the case despite previous attempts to kill herself.

In a statement issued after the verdicts, he said: “Being repeatedly called a ‘liar’ and a ‘fantasist’ about a horrific part of her life in front of a court challenged her personal integrity and was more than even she could bear.

“She was forced to relive the many times Michael Brewer had sexually abused her as a child, both to the police on multiple occasions and in court to a hostile party.

“Having been heavily advised by the police not to receive any form of therapy until the end of the case (a process of almost two years) she was forced to cope on her own with only the support of her family and very close friends.

“This meant that, even after several attempts at her own life, she did not get the help she needed. The court system let her down.”

Javed Khan, chief executive of Victim Support, said the case tragically illustrated the trauma that victims of sexual abuse go through when they give evidence in court.

“Aggressive cross-examination like this is far too common an event,” he told the Today programme. “In our adversarial justice system the victim is only a bit-player in the process.”

The CPS has defended its handling of the trial. It said a dedicated witness care officer was assigned to explain the trial process and Andrade was offered a familiarisation visit to the court in advance.

It added that she had agreed to give evidence in court rather than by video link and restated her willingness to do so on several occasions before and during the trial. She was also consulted before the Brewers were charged.

The prosecutor, Peter Cadwallader, was selected for his skill in handling sensitive cases and the CPS also applied for special measures to shield the victim in court but she declined to use them so she could face the defendants, the CPS said.

She confirmed her choice to proceed without special measures in a conversation with the prosecutor immediately before she gave evidence, it added.

She was a combative, confident and emotional witness. When Kate Blackwell QC, Brewer’s barrister, alleged her account of being raped by the Brewers at their house was “utter fantasy”, Andrade loudly replied: “Bollocks”.

“You have told this jury a complete pack of lies about the visit to this house,” said Blackwell.

Andrade replied: “This is why cases don’t come to court. This happened.”

The trial judge, Martin Rudland, said on Thursday that Blackwell had been “perfectly proper and correct in her examination of all the witnesses in this case”.

The Guardian has learned that Andrade, 48, texted a friend three days before her death to say she felt like she had been “raped all over again” after appearing in the witness box at Manchester crown court last month to face Brewer.

Complaining about a robust cross-examination by Blackwell, who accused her of telling “a pack of lies”, she wrote sarcastically: “I’m a fantasist with the Electra complex seeking attention.”

Andrade did not initiate the police investigation which led to the trial. Friends said she did not present herself as a “victim” and would have hated to be seen as such. They say she never wanted to give evidence against the Brewers.

She killed herself the day after Brewer started to give evidence. In the witness box he called her a “fantasist” who was “largely living a fantasy life”. The day before her death she had also been told that the judge had directed the jury to find Brewer not guilty on five of the indecent assault charges on the original indictment. The judge said those charges fell outside the statute of limitations because Andrade admitted in evidence that she may have been over the age of consent at the time.

When the judge heard of Andrade’s death, he adjourned the case for three days. Oliver Andrade added that it was “of the utmost importance” that victims of sexual abuse were made to “feel safe and supported” throughout the court process.

“This is the only way that we can ensure people can and will come forward in these circumstances and justice can be served.”