by Harriet Wistrich, director, Centre for Women’s Justice
We are grateful to Harriet Wistrich of the Centre for Women’s Justice for permission to republish this article. It is clear from the stories shared with us by Hague mothers that the Hague Convention is increasingly used as a (highly effective) weapon of abuse by perpetrators.
The defeat of Amber Heard in the recent libel case brought by her ex-husband Johnny Depp has been described as signalling the end of the #MeToo movement. Certainly, anyone who may have been contemplating speaking out about abuse by a wealthy, powerful or famous man may think twice now if they have observed the terrifying onslaught of misogynistic hatred orchestrated against Heard on social media. Whatever your view on who was most at fault in the relationship, and it seems that even some domestic violence survivors are more critical of Heard than Depp, there is no doubt that she has been subject to the most vicious orgy of women hatred, whilst Depp who sent texts to his friend about “fucking her burnt corpse” remains uncritically adored by his fan base.
Interestingly, Heard did not name Depp in the article she wrote in the Washington Post, but the audacity of speaking publicly about domestic abuse when it was known the saintly Depp was her former partner was apparently the outrage.
“Depp who sent texts to his friend about ‘fucking her burnt corpse’ remains uncritically adored by his fan base.”
Depp isn’t the first man to use the libel courts as a form of revenge for having been accused of being an abuser. Three years ago Centre for Women’s Justice held a massively oversubscribed public meeting exploring how wealthy men use the law to silence those that they accuse of abuse. We highlighted a number of cases including Stocker v Stocker, Lachaux v Independent Print Ltd, Economou v De Freitas and a case involving an indie musician who was suing a number of women who had shared stories of his abuse with each other. Nicola Stocker had posted a message on Facebook in which she stated her ex-husband had ‘tried to strangle her’ to warn his subsequent partner of his dangerousness. Her ex, Mr Stocker, a wealthy businessman sued her for libel. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court before she ultimately defeated him. But others have been less lucky, Afsana Lachaux, whose ex-husband took custody of their child having opted to use the manifestly discriminatory Sharia court of Dubai [he is a French national] was sued for libel through the newspapers that published her account of domestic abuse. She subsequently faced bankruptcy having been ordered to pay her ex nearly £100,000 legal costs in subsequent family court proceedings. Lachaux was joint winner of the Emma Humphreys Memorial Prize in 2019 and wrote of her experience here.
Women have always been fearful of speaking about male violence and abuse and in the early days of the Women’s Liberation Movement, a common refrain and campaigning theme was ‘breaking the silence’. We know that the majority of victims of male violence do not report, and the reasons are often because they fear being disbelieved or blamed in some way for ‘getting themselves’ raped or beaten or for staying in a violent relationship when they could leave. Indeed it has taken the campaigning of feminists to get the criminal courts to provide guidance on some of the most pervasive myths and stereotypes that exist around rape and sexual violence including where women are blamed for the way they are dressed or how they behaved.
Whilst feminist advocacy has helped achieved some modifications to criminal justice practice including directions on rape myths and stereotypes, guidance on domestic abuse, sexual violence and other forms of violence against women on the CPS website and in the Judges Bench Book, such guidance has not been extended to courts trying non-criminal cases. Thus in defamation proceedings, the limited protections that exist for women in the criminal courts, go out the window and myths and victim blaming is unchecked. In the family courts, recent case law has highlighted significant inconsistencies in the interpretation and understanding of rape, coercive control and an absence of rules around the admission of previous sexual history.
And it is not just in the libel courts that men accused of abuse seek to silence their accusers or seek revenge. Family courts have become a tool for some abusers to maintain control of women who have tried to leave the relationship using child contact proceedings to force the woman to fight repeated applications in court often spending any savings they may have had available. Campaigners have highlighted the increased misuse of the concept of ‘parental alienation’ as another strategy by domestic abusers to exact revenge as set out in this Observer special feature
“We also see abusers use the threat of reporting women with unsettled immigration status to the Home Office as a means of controlling their wives or partners or seeking revenge.”
Determined abusers can also be adept at manipulating other statutory systems to control or exact revenge against women who have dared to accuse them or leave them. A few years ago I was contacted by a woman, who I will refer to as Sarah, who was in a relationship with a well-known actor. She had moved in with him with her two older children from a previous marriage. After Sarah became pregnant with their child, he started becoming violent and abusive, so she reported him to the police. He had warned her that if she dared pursue the charges he would make her life a misery. And that is what he set about doing. He made counter allegations against Sarah, and she was arrested. He manipulated third parties to make allegations against her and her older child to the police and social services alleging that harm was being caused to their child. He applied for a non-molestation order against Sarah, alleging she was harassing him. Social services instituted investigations against her. She was a professional working with children, so social services reported the allegations to her employer. It was only when a lie told by the actor unraveled that she was able to stop the escalating campaign of revenge. Sarah could have lost her career and custody of her youngest child. The consequences of years of psychological abuse were none the less devastating.
We also see abusers use the threat of reporting women with unsettled immigration status to the Home Office as a means of controlling their wives or partners or seeking revenge. Equally, women who may be serving community sentences for crimes often committed in the context of being victims of domestic abuse can be further controlled by abusive partners who may seek to undermine their compliance with supervision requirements.
The tactics used by Depp in his claim against Amber Heard, have been described as a classic example of DARVO, “deny, attack, and reverse victim and offender”, a manipulation strategy where the abuser denies the abuse ever took place, attacks the victim for attempting to hold the abuser accountable, and claims that they, the abuser, are actually the victim in the situation, thus reversing the reality of the victim and offender. Like the term ‘gaslighting’ which has become more widely understood in recent years, identifying what is going on and naming the problem is the first step to resistance and fightback. It is critical that the courts and statutory agencies become wise to being unwittingly used by abusers to extend their manipulation of victims.